Dear Michael and Debi,
Our children are now 3 ½ , 22 months, and 3 months. When our first child was 19 months old and I was pregnant with our second, we moved and made new friends with a family that had well balanced, happy, and obedient children. After much pleading that they tell us their secret, they gave us your book.
To cut a long story short, we now have two relatively well-balanced kids. My husband and I are still riding a roller-coaster of stress and anxiety with occasional loops of wonderful joy and contentment with our children. That is not what the book said it would be like!! In a way, I feel worse with my pretty-well-balanced kids than I did with the unruly first one. Sure, she threw an occasional tantrum, which raised my blood pressure, but on the whole, I found that I just loved her so much that I put up with those times as being “normal.” and thoroughly enjoyed her for just who she was the rest of the time (and even the tantrums I could generally laugh about later).
Firstly, I would like to talk with you about attitudes, mine mainly. I know that a lot of the sulking and whining that goes on with the girls is a reflection of my attitude towards them. As I said before, when I had no expectations or standards for the behavior of toddlers, I was extremely patient with my daughter and her ways and I just enjoyed being with her. Since reading your book I have set certain standards as norm for my children, and I find that I tend to look at the kids and judge their every word and action, by the standards I have mentally set. I don’t enjoy being with our kids any more (unless they are having one of their super well behaved days. I am very saddened and irritated. To see how insecure L. has become, rather than the secure, at peace child I envisaged at the outset of re-training her the “right” way.
I can see that I need to step outside of our little world here for a while, get a proper focus on things and perspective. The more disappointed I become with our training non-results, the more introspective I become, which gets me more irritated and disappointed, making the snowball bigger and bigger—I don’t want it to explode and shatter us all.
I guess my question to you is how do I get off of this roller coaster before it is too late and I’ve done damage to the children along the way?? I just want to enjoy the kids and nurture them with love and patience and understanding, but I find myself at a point where I cannot deal with the conflicts while maintaining the Christ-like attitude God asks us to have with our children. I am at the point where the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when a child disobeys, or displays a bad attitude, I can feel the tension and stress level in my body rise. Though I try to maintain my outward composure, and though I try to speak calmly to the girls when rebuking them and switching them, I think deep down I feel irritated more than anything, because I can’t see the training working.
She then gives two examples of the problems they have. The three-year-old will not lie down for a nap. They spank until they are weary, but it does no good. The next child often fails to respond when given a command. She says, “We are weary and irritated, and don’t know where we’re going wrong.”
The 3 ½-year-old is jealous of the 2-year-old, always wants what the other has, jumps all over us, smothers us with kisses when she sees the younger child coming our way, pushes past the other to get to us first, sulks when any of the above doesn’t work out or when we gently rebuke her for being jealous. What can we do?
The 3½-year-old’s attitude will probably mend when mine does, but I find her difficult to hug when she’s being jealous or feeling sorry for herself. I think it is beyond a case of discipline when I am feeling like that, and more a time of mending, but how? Why is the switching and rebuke and a general “come,” “stop,” “go” drilling not working?
The 3 ½-year-old also claims to be “scared” to be by herself. Even during the day, she wants the lights on in the toilet and cries hysterically if we all start to go downstairs while she is still in her room upstairs. I am irritated by this, but should this be an area where I just stay with her and reassure her? I have been telling her to just come and catch up with us, but she carries on a bit if we don’t stop to wait for her.
We feel very alone and very tired, and we would appreciate a boost of enthusiasm and support, maybe a kick in the backside. These are children God has given us, and we don’t want to damage them or our relationship with them, and especially their relationship with Him.
I commend you for your openness and willingness to expose yourself and face up to your need.
I often wish I could say tough things more smoothly, but I am concerned that I will not be understood unless I say exactly what I am thinking the way I think it. I fear that if I polish it too much the shine might hide the message. So before I offer some practical advise, I am going to give you that “kick in the backside.”
According to your testimony, you were doing better before you tried to implement the principles taught in our book. If I weren’t an old soldier, I would feel like apologizing for raising your expectations. Remember, you were discontent with your children before you read my book. You said you engaged in “much pleading” to get your friends to tell you their “secret” to having “well balanced, happy, and obedient children.” Obviously you had prior concerns about your child training.
You admitted you had a problem with attitude towards your children, but you seem to have an attitude towards me and the things said in the book. You said, “Since reading your book I have set certain standards as norm for my children, and I find that I tend to look at the kids and judge their every word and action by the “standards I have mentally set.” You talk like someone trying to face up to a legalistic spirit, confessing that your expectations are unrealistic. But know that the standards by which you now judge your children are not imposed on you. If you are uncomfortable with your expectations, change them; desire only what is best for your children. I give you my permission to throw out all the elevated standards you received from reading our book. You can go back to “loving them just like they are.” It won’t work will it? The standards are now your own. Regardless of the source, when one’s knowledge of good and evil is awakened it is impossible to go back to innocence. There is a degree of truth in the old cliché, “Ignorance is bliss.” You don’t become angry when your children violate standards written in a book. Like it or not, they are now your standards. You are judging your children and your own performance by what you really expect in your own heart. You believe such performance as you have required is possible and desirable or you would not be frustrated. You are just making one last feeble attempt to lay the blame elsewhere. But I can tell from your letter that you have sighted on the source of your problem and you are the target. As you are reluctantly doing, you must fully face your fault if you are to progress.
If your standards had not been raised by reading my book, you would have experienced frustration all the same. All parents, whether they read my book or not, go through a shift in their expectations just as you did. We parents demand very little from a one-year-old, but we naturally expect much more from a three-year-old. I didn’t teach you to expect more; I taught you how to achieve it. And as a matter of record, it has proven effective for tens of thousands of families.
As a matter of principle, many times I have said, “If you can’t bring your children up to your higher standards, and, as a result, you find that you are critical and losing fellowship with the kids, then lower your standards to the point where you can relax and enjoy their company. It is better to have an undisciplined, selfish, self-centered brat that feels secure and loved than to have an undisciplined, selfish, self-centered brat who feels she is despised by everyone.
It doesn’t have to be an either/or. But if you find that as a result of personal limitations you are unable to achieve the norm, then know that fellowship and good will are always first on any child training agenda. Criticism, anger, and rejection are Satanic soil, a place to breed rebels and derelicts. You should have given more attention to the section on tying strings of fellowship.
I have been hard on you. But I believe you have asked for it. Despite shades of your attempting to pass the buck, I can see that you know the answer lies with a change in your own heart. You are correct in that estimation, and I assure you that such a transformation is within sight.
Paul the Apostle described his own similar experience of awakening.
“For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. 10 And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. 11 For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. 12 Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. 13 Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. 16 If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good (Romans 7: 9-16).”
At one time, probably in his youth, Paul was comfortable in a shallow interpretation of the law. But the day came when he began to understand the implications of God’s commandments, at which time he did just what you did, he accepted the new revelation as good and binding upon his life. But when he tried to obey, the experience was far worse than before he had his expectations raised. He even describes his experience of the law as a revival of sin and death.
The main thrust of the coming of the law was to awaken his conscience to a higher righteousness, a righteousness he should obey, but he would find he couldn’t. In a small way, our book was to you in the area of child-training what the law was to Paul. The law was designed to be a schoolmaster to bring him to Christ (Gal 3:24). As a schoolmaster the law found him wanting and failed him. But what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, Christ did do through His Spirit (Rom. 8:3).
Dear Mother, you are in that very same place spiritually. You do not need more technique. You need a fresh dose of grace, mercy, and love from God. You need a trip to the cross and the open tomb. You need what I need daily, a trip to the upper room and the filling of the Holy Spirit. Wash yourself in the mercy of God, accept His forgiveness, and you will be different from the inside out. You cannot work this out in your mind. It is the miracle of Christianity to which I direct you.
By way of practical advice, there are several things you need to consider:
Your own relationship to God
Without doubt, when a parent is out of fellowship with the children, he/she is out of communion with God. The broken chain is most obvious in the parents’ relationship to their children, but the cause is much further back in the chain of relationships. If there is no peace within, it will manifest itself in your relationship to the kids. You cannot hide your own condition with training techniques. There is no way to do the right thing if you are not the right person.
We don’t have the space here, nor is this the format, to do justice to this subject. What I have said about your relationship to God could bury you under a pile. You already feel inadequate. To tell you that you are “not a good Christian” is rubbing salt in the wound. But please understand, at this point I am not calling you to a higher level of maturity. I am not telling you to settle down and do better. We often forget; there is only one way to relate to God, and that is through the blood of His son. At any moment, without any preparation, any of us can confess our total sinfulness and enter into an experience of mercy and grace. God delights to grant forgiveness to the “poor in spirit.” The big obstacle to God’s blessings is our own efforts at acceptance. We can never find acceptance with God by reaching a place where we accept ourselves. Based on the sacrifice of Christ, God accepts what we cannot—in others and ourselves. What we reject, God injects with abundant mercy and forgiveness. The road to forgiveness is not to reverse your course (which is impossible) but to throw yourself upon the mercy of God. Purchase the little book, All of Grace, by C. H. Spurgeon. The first chapter will set your soul free. We do not sell the book. It can be found in most any Christian bookstore.
Your relationship to your husband
You cannot be a better mother than you are a wife. You cannot be in contention with your husband and be relaxed with the kids. It is impossible. You are a whole person, not an actor with different roles. There is a chain of authority, with God at the top, then your husband, you, and finally the kids. A chain of authority is also a channel for the delivery of blessings. If you do not receive from the chain above, you cannot pass it on to the kids under you.
Your relationship to your parents and friends
If there is bitterness, guilt, or resentment toward your parents or friends, your spirit will not be free to bless your children. If you are giving or receiving condemnation to anyone, then you cannot be other than a source of condemnation for your children. Condemnation is like an odor; you cannot direct it. It just oozes in all directions, affecting everyone.
Your attitude toward training
There can be only one motive for training your children—their welfare as they grow to bring glory to God. If you accept pressure from friends, relatives, or society to perform in a certain way, then you are no longer raising up children, you are coaching performers. The expectation of others is a blind motivator. It cares not for soul or spirit. It is for the praise of the moment—not praise of the child, but praise of parents. Don’t let anything, including our book, put you under pressure to display your good parenting. On your part, be content to be a failure. Care not for your reputation. True training is soul training. Soul training is first training in love, peace, creativity, grace, kindness, understanding, and then self-discipline, obedience, and responsibility. To try to teach heart obedience and self-discipline in an atmosphere of criticism and anger is like trying to make ice in the oven. Shake yourself free from public opinion and personal ambition. Freedom of spirit and joy are caught, not taught.
Your attitude toward life on this planet
To be a good mother you must have eternity in view. By that I do not mean that you must put on religious pretense, always rebuking the carnal minded around you, and steering all conversations back to the “sacred.” A mother with eternity in view will see the value of relaxing with her children. Housework and schoolwork are so temporal, so worldly, unless you can do them in a spirit of fellowship with others. Everyday deserves a song and a dance, not the dance of the world, but the dance of carefree feet tiptoeing through the blessings and joy of just being. Dirty floors, clothes that didn’t get picked up, spilled milk, and schoolwork that didn’t get done will be of no consequence 100,000 years from now. Whether poor or rich, highly educated or common laborer, the heart is cultivated to enjoy God’s presence. All else is vanity and vexation of spirit.
Write down all the things that trouble you during a day, not just the ones that pertain to the children. What is the very first irritation of the morning. It may be very subtle. It may not lead to bad words. You may not even be aware that your have been turned to a bad spirit. Write it all down for one day and then review it at night. Was it worth it? What are your values? Can you realistically expect others to change? If you change in your values and responses, then all has changed.
Your diet and sleep patterns
Many, many mothers are suffering from some form of chronic fatigue. Constipation is killing Americans. Fat is pressing in on the hearts and minds of society. Lack of nutrition and too much sugar is leaving brains running at the speed of garbage trucks. TV and late nights are stealing the family and health. Lack of exercise is wasting away minds as fast as it inflates bodies. Your mind functions through a physical brain. Your spirit lives in a vessel of flesh. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. You must learn to bring your body into subjection if you would free your spirit.
Your attitude toward your children
We saved this one until last, because if the others are all tended to there will be no problem here. Learn to view your children as people, not kids. They are adults that you are counseling and encouraging. But you have a privilege every counselor would love. You can undo the hurts and hang-ups by removing them before they happen. You are on the other side of the problem—before it is a problem. Your children are your fruit. They are your purpose for existing. You have the highest calling on planet earth. Several innocent souls are committed to your trust. They will be what you make them. Knowing this should give us a proper perspective.
Spend lots of time with your children just having fun. Think of ways to turn every moment of work and responsibility into joy. Win their hearts and earn a smile from each child every five minutes of the day. So doing, you will not have trouble with your attitude or theirs.
Read the article in our book, No Greater Joy Volume One, entitled Bad Attitude.