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on bikes, mercy, and drawing lines in the sand

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"Get on your bike."  I say every word slowly, deliberately, digging deep to stay even-keeled when I'm inwardly seething.

He sticks out his tongue.  "No, stupidhead."  He wants to go inside and play in his room  instead.

The little ones are already buckled into the bike trailer, and our lunch is simmering on the stove.  This is my hour.  To burn some energy, enjoy some sunshine, play outside with the kids between schoolwork and naps.  

And I'm wasting it on a showdown with a little boy.

I take a deep breath.  How do I handle this moment?  How do I stay consistent with him and not be held hostage by his attitude?  How do I follow through with consequences in a way that is fair to the rest of the family?


I don't believe in "hard" kids.  I believe in hard seasons and hard stages and temperaments that are more naturally compliant, or not ... but none of that speaks to who my kid is as a person.  Still, most days I find myself wondering how to discipline this child.  And my fear for him is that he will find his identity in a large family by acting out, that others will label him "hard" or, worse, "bad" and he will believe them.  I fight against that, hard.  He is tenacious, iron-willed, and I am quick to point out that tenacious people do very well in life.  Stubborn people finish what they start, tenacious people become leaders.  

And this same little boy calling me names in the driveway will also be the little boy who curls into my lap with a book in a few hours, who sneaks into my room to cuddle before any of the others awaken.  He is the first to notice when a stranger is sad or alone, the quickest to tear his sandwich in half or share a toy with a neighbor.  He has a good heart and a thousand strengths, and I will not let him become the "bad" kid in our family.  

But lately that ironclad will has been pointed directly at me.

Today it is about riding his bike, yesterday it was leaving the pool.  Yesterday my sweet little boy walked to the car in his snow boots and bathing suit, a towel wrapped around him on a breezy 55* day, because while everyone else changed clothes in the locker room, he ran back into the water and hid from me.

Oh, this little boy of mine.

I stare at him as he glares at me on the driveway, weighing, once more, how to respond.  "Fine," I say after a minute.  "You may not go inside.  You stand right here and watch the rest of us have fun."  I climb onto my bike and pedal away, riding back and forth on the block in front of my house.  I race my other son, pulling fifty pounds of babies and canvas and metal frame behind me, putting my frustration to good use (though I still lost the race).

And as I ride I wonder, what is mercy in this situation?

Truth be told, I'm a mercy kind of mom.  A peacemaking mom, a "let's see how we can work this out" mom.  Redirection and pre-teaching suit me just fine. The line in the sand is not my natural stance.  Yet, it's my job to help children learn self-control.  Following directions and teamwork are a part of every life.  So are natural consequences.  As much as I genuinely hate that aspect of parenting, I can't deny its importance.  

When every single day I am going toe to toe with one specific child, it feels like mercy to back down, to adjust my expectations so that I am less frustrated with him all the time.  But I suspect that for this moment, and for this child, that is a lie.  I suspect real mercy is found in not giving up.  In insisting this little boy learn to control himself too, be part of the team too, be kind to his siblings too.  As exhausting as it is, as frustrated as I am, real mercy to my son in this moment means letting consequences unfold when he is a little kid, so that he can channel all of that tenacity when he's an adult.  It means letting him be cold in the parking lot or stand alone in the front yard while the rest of us play.

It means stepping up and insisting he play by the same rules.  Even when I don't want to.

I pull back into the driveway, breathing hard.  My son cuts his eyes at me.  I sit down on the sidewalk beside him.  "You know what?"  I say to him.

"What."

"Even when you call me stupidhead, I still love you with all my heart."

"I know," he says.  "You've been telling me that all my life."

"Good," I say.  "You can go back inside now.  You can play in your room for a few minutes before lunch."

Of all of the tasks of parenting, I am the least confident in discipline.  But this I know:  If mercy is my guide, I can at least trust myself to take the next step forward.  Even when that means stepping up to the line in the sand.  

4 comments:

  1. I'm reading this with a heart still hurting from similar words my daughter slung at me earlier today. This is exactly what I'm going through with her, and I'm out of ideas. Thank you for the encouragement to keep stepping up to the line!

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  2. This is such a great reminder for me. Sometimes I get discouraged when my daughter gets into these willfully-defiant stages. I have been in exactly this same position more times than I can count. I like your approach! I have tried it, but not nearly as many times as I should.

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  3. I'm in this place with Haydn, though he is older. And I think I did step down too easily when he was a wee thing. I was tired and had my own demons to fight. I let things go when I should have toed the line. Now, the lines are harder to draw and it's harder to hold him to them. I am even more exhausted. But this post encourages me to keep trying.

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