Long ago and far away, in a barely-remembered life, my husband and I were dog-shopping in a Humane Society. Amidst the deafening din of frantically hopeful barking that echoed over the concrete floor, we surveyed the hard-luck cases culled from the streets of St. Louis.
All of the dogs had little notes on their kennels, such as I am a gentle older dog and I miss my owner, who had to go to the nursing home and couldn’t take me along. I would love to be your new companion, or I am very affectionate and I love belly rubs!
The notes were all obviously intended to be winsome, but since I’d spent some high school volunteer time at a Humane Society, I knew that some of them required a little creative reading; e.g., I want to be your only pet (read: “I’ll eat your cat”); I would be a wonderful addition to a home without children (read: “I’ll bite your babies”); I would be a wonderful agility dog. I respond well to lots of exercise and attention (read: “If I’m bored, I’ll chew the furniture and herd your dinner guests); or I am loving and loyal but sometimes nervous, and I need someone who will be patient with me (read: “I’ll pee on your floor every time the door bell rings”).
In short, the good people at the Humane Society recognize the power of words to shape our perception and treatment of our fellow creatures. (And indeed the fellow creatures’ perceptions of themselves, at least when the creatures happen to be human ones.)
Over the years, I’ve heard people that I don’t even know very well say some startlingly harsh things about their kids, sometimes in said kids’ hearing. Why do parents do this? Well…I know all too well why parents do this. It can be so very hard, especially when one is frustrated with a child, or embarrassed by his behavior, to bite one’s tongue.
As my children grow, I’ve become increasingly convicted about how crucial it is to mind my words about them, especially (but not only) in their hearing. Would I like it if my husband patted me on the head whilst laughing to a buddy about how Wifey just never can seem to time the meatloaf and the potatoes exactly right, etc., etc.? No? Then perhaps I should think twice before telling tales in a condescending tone, even a fond one, as Sonny stands by, all red ears.
Awhile back, I read something to this effect in a veteran homeschooling mom’s reflections: I wish I’d talked less, and to fewer people, about my kids’ failings, even when the kid wasn’t around to hear it. Now, everyone needs someone(s) to talk to about the specific challenges presented at times by certain children, particularly Difficult Children (Heck, some of us could use a regular support group…), but that venue is most properly a)someone who cares for you and your family, preferably someone who also loves your children, b)someone who is walking (or has walked) a similar road and can offer helpful insights or much-needed empathy, and/or sometimes c)a pastor, counselor, or other professional.
The venting venue—and this one isn’t always easy for me to swallow back down—is not anyone and everyone at church who sees you embarrassed for the umpteenth time by a behavior that you know perfectly well that you have addressed to the best of any parent’s possible ability. Grin (gritting your teeth as amiably as possible counts) and bear it; remove the kid for whatever preplanned words or measures you need to take; save the steam you need to blow off for your support system.
If the people at the Humane Society can do so well at applying Luther’s catechetical explanation of the eighth commandment to the furry four-footed crowd, then surely I can work a little harder at putting the best possible construction on the dear little eternal neighbors entrusted to my care.
And when I remember to do this, to extend the same grace that I would like to receive, and indeed have received in such abundance, I’m amazed at how thoroughly it lights up the kid’s face and how instantly it puts us both back on the same team (imperfect, sinful beings operating under God’s grace and forgiveness, ever striving to help each other bear more fruit) again.
Try a few?
When the kid who “should be” too old to need you to walk him to his Sunday school room interrupts your conversation because he really does need you to walk him to his Sunday school room: “I’ll be right back. Sometimes we still like to walk to Sunday school together” is just so much better than, “*eyeroll, sigh*, hang on, I guess he can’t handle walking down the hall by himself yet.”
When the kid who’s been told a thousand times not to interrupt, interrupts for the thousand and oneth time, a whispered reminder followed by a “Sorry, he’s just very excited to share” is much more graceful for all involved than is a snappish, “Can’t you see that we’re talking? What have I told you about interrupting?”
When the live wire who is constitutionally unable to sit politely in a pew for long stretches has an eyebrow-raisingly difficult Sunday (again): “Don’t you wish we still had that kind of energy? This kid does so well when we give him a tough project; you ought to see him sweep the garage.”
When your fumble-fingered, Velcro-shod kid watches a younger friend (and younger friend’s mom) show off his lacing skills: your kid will forever remember that you (whatever your private despair over his motor skill delays) complimented the other kid, then hugged him and turned the conversation briefly to something he did well (and didn’t make him practice knots for half an hour after you got home).
I know this is all terribly obvious but I wasn’t born clever and I have to keep learning and re-learning this stuff as I go along. I still mess this up sometimes, but I’m trying to get better. Fortunately, there are no shortages of opportunities to practice...
And remember, if you’ve got a kid, like that tragic little Chihuahua mix at the pound, and in fact like most toddlers at least at some point, who really does pee on the floor every time the doorbell rings, just try to remind yourself: She is loving and personable. She just needs someone to be patient with her when she gets a little nervous and forgets herself. ;P