Presented at Mothers of Preshoolers Meeting, April 2013
Today, I am going to share not so much on raising children but on being a mom. I have raised two daughters, who are now 23 and 25, and have a 6-year-old grandson. As I prepared for this talk, I considered a goal of MOPS from a prior website post: "MOPS is for mothers with children, newborns through age six, seeking to meet the needs of every mom, who all share a similar desire to be the very best moms they can be! MOPS recognizes that the years from infancy through 1st grade are foundational in a mother-child relationship."
This was my biggest problem. I wanted to be “The Good Mom” – the BEST mom I could be because this thing I was doing was so important – foundational – in the lives of the two most precious people in the whole world to me, my sweet darling daughters! I did not want to mess it up! I did not want to mess them up! And the worst part was, I felt unprepared and overwhelmed with everything I needed to know, everything I needed to do, and all the time I needed to do it.
I wanted the list. I wanted the magic formula. I wanted the five easy steps with the money-back guarantee on how to be “The Good Mom,” how to raise good, no perfect, children, or my money back.
I would like to tell you today that I found the list, but truthfully I did not. Actually I found many, many lists, so many that even my search for parenting knowledge became overwhelming. My goal today is to make this simple because actually having children is a natural thing to do. Women have been doing it since the beginning of time and with all the failures mothers have made, as well as successes, life continues to go on. My hope today is not merely to give you more advice but the courage and peace for your unique mothering journey.
But people do give us advice, don’t they? My dad’s advice was particularly memorable because it was simple and he didn’t give a lot of it. He told me “Barbara, hugs and spankings make good children.” Ok, that was a different era, so today we would say love and discipline make good children. It sounds instinctive, almost trite. What does that mean really? How do we do that exactly?
Loving our children means caring for their needs, spending time with them, wanting the best for them, and maybe, most importantly, unconditional acceptance. Our children need to know that no matter what they do, our care and devotion to them is constant and rock solid. No matter how they mess up, they can always come home and we will be welcoming to them.
Disciplining our children means we love them too much to leave them alone to do whatever they want, but instead to train them and teach them our values which we hope will help them succeed in life. Much has been said about the lack of values in our culture today, but especially as mothers, we do have things we value and want our children to be people of good character. We want them to be honest and kind. We want them to work hard and to share. We want them to be respectful of others and their property and we want them to expect others to be respectful of them. Just to name a few. I am sure right now, you are thinking of your own list.
Somehow we need to dance between these two: love and discipline. We need to love them for who they are, but not with a permissive love that allows bad behavior to go without consequence. We need to discipline them in a way that helps them to know when and why their behavior is wrong and encourage them to change, but also to be absolutely certain of our unconditional acceptance of them.
But you know all this already, right? This is something most of us do instinctively. It’s common sense. The problem is the actual experience is frustrating, annoying and exhausting!
For example, Johnny has been reminded 20 times to say thank you. Freddy has been disciplined at the dinner table 50 times to use his fork and not his hands. Sarah has been told at least 100 times to take her shoes upstairs to her room and not leave them in the middle of the living room. Amy must have sat on the steps for 500 hours already because she has not yet learned she cannot hit (or bite!) her little sister. You have said it so many times you now want to hurt them when they forget the rule or impulsively act out. You think they are not listening to you; they are never going to “get it!”
While you are waiting for the love and discipline to work out, it is important to have hope. We must avoid the trap where in our frustration to correct their behavior, we can jump from discipline to anger and being critical of them personally. We must hope for what we have not seen yet because the seeds of mothering take so long to flower and bear fruit.
Because one day, Johnny will say thank you to a friend in the school yard and you will hardly be able to stop from fainting. Freddy will use his fork but maybe you will not notice. And you won’t trip over Sarah’s shoes because she has put them in her room already and you will have forgotten all about it. And eventually Amy will stop biting her sister!
So let me encourage you: Don’t lose heart! Keep disciplining them! They really do hear you; they really will make that shift in their behavior!
Keep also loving them and be sure to discipline with love. Make sure your child knows that while they have made a mistake or done something wrong, that your love for them is absolutely constant. Draw a sharp distinction between the behavior and who they are themselves.
Personally, my biggest concern regarding being “The Good Mom” was my own troubled adolescence. I wanted to save my daughters from the turmoil I felt and the trouble I got into during my high school years. I was such a good obedient child during my elementary school days but when I reached my final high school years, I went crazy. I made some bad choices and I did some dangerous things.
One particularly memorable event occurred when I was a senior in high school. One Friday night I went out with a girlfriend. I wanted to party, so I decided to steal liquor from my dad’s well stocked pantry. I mixed several kinds into a plastic bottle and off we went to the stadium where all the kids were hanging out (Belleville High circa 1973). I drank that bottle until I passed out drunk. Fortunately for me, my friends called an ambulance and I wound up at Clara Maas Hospital having my stomach pumped. Needless to say, my mom was beside herself.
I’d like to tell you that there were issues at home, or that I had a mental health problem, but it was not like that at all. It was merely a girls-just-want-to-have-fun episode that got carried away. I’d also like to tell you that I too was horrified at my behavior and never drank again, but it was not like that at all. I continued to drink far too often and far too much for years, not really stopping until I was pregnant for the first time at age 31. It was only when I had teens myself, at age 50, that I truly understood the grief I had caused my poor mom. It was only then when I told her I was truly sorry.
This was just one of my several teenage disasters. As I reflected on my own bad behavior, I desperately wanted my own children to avoid the mistakes I made. I decided to make some major changes in our family life to be “The Good Mom”:
1. When my first daughter was born, I took a year leave from my lucrative, exciting and important management position at an international corporation which turned into a resignation within a year. I stayed home, and then when they began preschool, I worked at a part time job that allowed me to be home when they came home from school. I built my schedule around theirs to spend the most time with them as possible so that I could pour my love and values into them.
2. I prayed a lot! This was a tough job and I needed God’s help. I prayed for my children. I prayed with my children. I taught my children to pray as I taught them to talk, starting from “thank you Jesus for my food, amen,” to the nightly bedtime prayer thanking God for the day and acknowledging His protection during the night. That rote “goodnite” prayer that I made up gave them such comfort that eventually they would yawn as I would say it with them.
3. I took pains to model obedience in my own life by being submissive to my husband and to what my faith taught through the Bible. My goal was to show my children that even I could not do whatever I wanted. I too had a higher authority who held me accountable.
4. When my daughters were in preschool, I chose a church with a close, active community and families with children the same age as mine. My hope was to build a village around my daughters that had the same values as I did. And as you see, to this day, my church is active and warm and that is a good thing to have around your children.
5. I was the one who opened my house to their playmates, hosting play dates, volunteering in their schools, taking on that key job of chauffeur, so that it was my voice and my values that they heard. In that way, I poured into not only my daughters, but also their friends: loving them and promoting my values to them as well.
6. I taught my daughters my values as we did life together. I always looked for teachable moments, when value lessons naturally coincided with life. I tried to avoid saying “because I said so” and tried to always explain why something was a good or a bad choice.
All this worked great for a while. I had sweet, obedient, compliant children. People would ask me how I disciplined them, but actually, I didn’t have to very much as they got older. They wanted to do the right thing, and after I warned them once or twice, and explained the what and the why, they generally made good choices.
Like my dad, the Bible also gave me parenting advice: Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6 NKJ) This sounded like a promise! And it was from the Bible too, so it had to be true, right? So between all that I was doing myself and the church village I built around my family, I thought I had discovered the “secret formula” to being “The Good Mom.”
Maybe you can see already how idealistic this sounded now, but at the time, it was all working for me. Then the inevitable happened, my daughters reached high school and that funny thing happened to their brains.
It was like a switch that turned off and suddenly I was done with that portion of my mothering journey. During the toddler, preschool and elementary school phases of their lives, not only did they love me, but I was always right. I was the unquestioned authority. My daughters had total confidence in whatever I told them. During the next segment of my mothering journey, I could not discipline them in the same way, because suddenly they had become self-aware and self-directional. It happens differently and at unique times with each child and most importantly it is unexpected. But it happened and the window of opportunity for me had closed. After that time in their development, everything I said and believed became just another person’s opinion.
I don’t tell you this to scare you as much as to encourage you to make the most of the current opportunity you have with them now, because it does not last forever.
I still can recall when this developmental shift happened for me when I was a teen. I remember the whole scene, I was sitting on my brother’s bed and the sun was shining bright through the window and suddenly I realized I did not have to do what my mom said, I could do what I wanted. And I didn’t need to tell her about it either. It was a euphoric feeling.
Not so much when it happened the other way around. When I realized my daughters had come to that conclusion and their futures were out of my hands, I was devastated. I had told them everything they were going to hear with their childhood ears, and now, everything I said was just another opinion of an older, out-of-touch adult. I would never have the influence on their lives I once enjoyed.
When they began to do things I did not approve of and that flew in the face of the values that I had so painstakingly taught them, not only was I worried for them, but I questioned myself. I thought I was the Good Mom? What happened?
What happened to the promise -- Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it?? But wait, the Bible also says: The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly perverse and corrupt and severely, mortally sick! (Jeremiah 17:9 AMP) and also “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands.” (Romans 3:10-11 quoting several Old Testament verses).
What happened for me was that my measurement of whether or not I was “The Good Mom” was tied into how my children were performing. But that is a trap because they are human and flawed. They will never be perfectly good. And to make it even more complicated, we are flawed too.
We all have dreams and desires for our children, goals we want them to attain, and we sacrifice and prepare for those goals. We think our child will graduate high school, go to college, get a good job, get married, and have children. We never think OUR child will be the one in undergraduate college for 6 years, or out of work for 4 years, or in rehab, in jail, in the army overseas, or in the hospital. But it happens. It happens even when your desire is to be the very best mom you can be.
But you don’t have to have a teen to feel this disappointment. Children, no matter what the age, can disappoint us. We don’t like to talk about this, or even think about it, but it happens. We can be disappointed because our child is not as pretty, smart, athletic, creative, slim, compliant, as we hoped they would be. Maybe they don’t disappoint us because they are wrong, but just different from what we wanted or hoped. Maybe we are expecting them to be too mature too soon. Sometimes our issues with our children are more about us than about them.
As mothers, we sacrifice and try so hard because of love. But individual results may vary. Mothering is not like baking a Betty Crocker cake. Blend mix with 3 eggs, 1 cup of water and a 1/3 cup of oil, bake at 350 for 30 minutes and out pops the perfect cake. Mothering is more complicated than that, so let’s be gentle on ourselves. It is not merely nurture. It is also nature, and the culture, and health factors, and economic factors, all of which are out of our control.
So along with the advice of my dad: love and disciple make good children, I have added another one: hope and forgiveness makes happy moms. Because the scripture is still true: So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. (Galatians 6:9 NLT)
We need to have hope that all that we pour into them and the sacrifices we make, are worth it. That they are better off because of what we do. And even though I could not help my daughters avoid all the pitfalls of adolescence, in the end we managed to survive.
We must forgive our children when they make mistakes, when they hurt us and when they disappoint the dreams we have for them. Maybe that sounds unusual, forgiving your child. Usually we think in terms of forgiving people like our husbands, our friends, our sisters or brothers. But our children also wound us, and if we don’t actively forgive them, let them off the hook, and affirm our love for them, it not only wounds them, but it ultimately wounds us too. Unforgiveness is like a mixing a poison but drinking it ourselves.
Because our children will disappoint us. They will make wrong choices. Not that I want to tell you that’s ok. It is certainly not ok. To circle back to my teenage drinking story, what I did was not ok. It was wrong: illegal actually because I was underage and drinking in a public place. It was dangerous: I could have died of alcohol poisoning. It is not ok, but wrong choices are inevitable! We all made mistakes and wrong choices in our lives. But after it is over, our children need to know that we still love them.
When my daughter was a teen, there was one particularly memorable occasion when she was going to deliver news about the consequences of one of her own bad choices. I’ll never forget that day either. It was evening and I was sitting on my bed watching her brush her hair in the mirror. She opened with “Mom, do you love me?” before she gave me the difficult news.
Looking back in retrospect I see that was the real question. Did I still love her although I was going to find out she was not the perfect child I had hoped she would be?
I greatly regret to tell you my reaction was not to reassure her of my love, support and forgiveness. Instead I freaked out and self-centeredly, I made it more about me than about her. I beg you: do not to make that same mistake with your children.
Do not confuse forgiveness with trust. Trust that is broken must be earned again by right actions over a period of time. Wrong behavior demands consequences. Privileges must be deserved. But forgiveness must be unconditional, especially with our children.
When our children make bad choices or even merely disappoint us, our reaction is crucial. We have a choice: we can move towards accepting them and loving them anyway and continue to have hope for their future. Or we can believe the worst and become angry and bitter. I have wallowed in anger and bitterness at my children for their mistakes and I can tell you from personal experience, it was like poison. It poisoned my relationship with my daughters and sabotaged my own peace. I learned the hard way that forgiveness is the better choice.
I have also discovered that after some segments of my mothering journey were complete, I looked back and wished I had done things differently. Forgiveness is also for me. It is important to forgive myself as well.
Selfishly, I have decided that hope and forgiveness makes me a happy mom. And a happy mom is a better mom than an angry bitter mom.
In the end, one gift of parenting is grandchildren and I have had the joy of watching my older daughter mother my grandson Giovanni. You see, we learn to mother during the process when we were mothered ourselves. And when we mother, all of that comes back out of our heart when we give back to our children. So in effect, I am watching my daughter pour out to my grandson all the love and discipline I gave to her. A mother’s love and discipline is like passing a baton from one generation to the next. As we were loved, so we love our children, and our children love their children. Not perfectly. But good enough.
Which is why I want to leave you with this final thought: Because we mother out of who we are inside, it is urgent to do all we can to heal our own old hurts. Hurt people hurt people, and so we must attend to the matters of our own hearts. How do we know this is an issue?
If there are times when you get disproportionately angry, sad, anxious, or hurt by the run-of-the-mill bumps and bruises of life, then that is a good sign there are bigger issues in your heart and maybe in your past you need to address in order to be healthy when you mother. If you find it is difficult to forgive your children and have hope for their future, this is another sign that you may need help.
When we take the time to heal ourselves, via counseling or other measures, then we will be healthier and our children will be healthier. When we do not take the time to heal ourselves, we run the risk of allowing our hurts to wound our children. Instead of passing a baton of love, we pass a baton of wounded-ness. But you can be the one who says, it stops in this generation by getting the help you need today.
So to summarize:
- love and disciple makes good children
- hope and forgiveness makes happy moms
- and finally make the most of the opportunity you have with your children now, because it does not last forever.