Sunday, May 10, 2009

Good intentions

First, Happy Mother's Day! I hope that it is full of love, joy and peace for you--and a massage, a nap, and some good coffee and chocolate wouldn't come amiss, either.

I was thinking last night about the whole discipline issue, and I think that the biggest change is in the mindset of the parent. It is relatively easy to focus on things like spanking, because it is very concrete and measurable. You can make very clear boundaries and definitions. I think, though, that gentle discipline goes far beyond whether or not you spank. It is inextricably tied up with how we view ourselves and our children.

Photo by abbamouse on Flickr
My biggest gripe against Ezzo, Dobson et al isn't the horrific breastfeeding advice or even the blind insistence on corporal punishment. It is the mindset that parents and children are at war, that our kids are enemies that must be subdued, broken and defeated. Every action or non-action on the child's part then becomes reflected through the fun house mirror of perceived manipulation, defiance and evil intent. Yes, there are twisted people out there who are conniving, and will play with your emotions to get some sick satisfaction of controlling you. Your four-month-old is not one of them. And, just as importantly, allowing yourself to freely love your four-month-old and respond to her cries will not turn her into that kind of person.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was a quote in Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting: "Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts." Especially with little children, their motives are so often much better than we initially assume. Can you ever think of a time when you misjudged your child, or simply zeroed in on the negative and overlooked a far more important positive motive? One that readily comes to mind is when I was exasperated with a mess, only to find out that it was the result of making a beautiful painting for me.

I think every parent or caregiver should have a basic understanding of child development. If you are looking for resources, Penelope Leach has some excellent books, and the Ames and Ilg series is even more detailed. So often we disregard the drives and developmental stages that God has ordained for babies and children and then consider them the ones who are rebellious!

Little babies are programmed to eat and wake often. It helps them to survive. When your toddler gleefully says no, it is an important part of learning to recognize himself as an individual separate from you and to learn about the power of language. Knowing that the part of the brain that governs impulse control is still not fully developed in your two-year-old can make a big difference.

Consider the incredible quantity and variety of information that young children are expected to assimilate every day. Then imagine that you were beginning a job where you didn't speak the language fluently, where you were trying to master a bewildering amount of physical, mental and social skills, and your mentors greeted every not-quite-perfect attempt with punishment or impatience. Would you ask lots of questions? Would you sometimes come across as rude for expressing yourself too abruptly in the language you were still in the process of acquiring? Would you some days get so overwhelmed with the expectations--both of the people around you and yourself--that you'd have a meltdown? I would.

Even worse, I could imagine my frustration getting to the point where I'd decide I may as well fulfill their suspicions of me, if they were going to believe the worst anyway. On the other hand, I can clearly remember times when I made the right choice because I didn't want to lose trust that had been placed in me.

As parents, we don't want to be foolishly taken advantage of by our children, or blind to areas in their character that need work. I'm not suggesting we turn into fatuously doting, feeble-minded parents who ignore our calling to teach and guide our kids. But, the truth is, most of us operate under a default setting. We either presume innocence or guilt.

What if we decided that our children were innocent until proven guilty? What if we approached situations with the idea of teaching more appropriate ways to meet their needs rather than assuming maliciousness on their part? Believe it or not, this is a pretty radical concept. Once you try it, it can even begin to spill over into how you perceive your spouse!

Will you ever get burned? Probably. There will always be times when we don't have all the facts and are required to guess to the best of our ability. But if we expect the worst, we will be wrong just as often or more so, and the consequences to our relationship may be even more dire.

I Corinthians 13:7 says that love "always trusts, always hopes" (NIV), "always looks for the best" (The Message), "is ever ready to believe the best of every person" (Amplified), "is loyal, hopeful and trusting" (Contemporary English Version).

Does that sound reckless? Well, I Peter 1:22 instructs us to love each other fervently. Fervent love chooses to believe the best about the beloved. Most of the time, our children want to please us. Let's operate under that assumption, in the absence of evidence to the contrary. They really do have good intentions.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

You say some great stuff in this post. I love it all. And I think you are so right that every parent should have a basic understanding of child development. It really is important! Maybe it would help some people see that it is perfectly fine for a baby to wake up in the night to eat. Or for my 13-month old to constantly tell me "NO." She's learning that she's a separate creature from me, and enjoying it! It doesn't mean there's anything wrong!