Monday, November 23, 2009

Mirror, Mirror

After a mostly sweet day, Ben had an outburst before bed involving outright defiance and angry declarations of what he was not going to do. This, of course, happened in front of guests, which always adds an element of charge to parenting situations (and sometimes fuels these outbursts thanks to the pride factor that comes into play when Mom makes requests or corrections in front of others). It was ugly, but I managed to maintain my cool, and he took himself to his room voluntarily in spite of the drama.

He shed some tears, settled down in his room, and then got ready for bed without issue, though tears continued to fall intermittently. He had reached that place of physical and emotional exhaustion that only snuggles and sleep can repair. So after changing into pajamas and brushing his teeth, he settled into my lap with relief for the rest of his bedtime routine: books, prayers, and songs. When we finished, I held him close, rocking quietly in the dark room. I kissed his head and said, "You know what, Peanut? I love you. I love you very much."

He replied sincerely, "I love you more than that. Do you know how much I love you? I love you this big," and he stretched his arms out as far as they could go. "I love you," and then he paused to find the right description, "I love you bigger than Daddy."

"Ohhh...that is big," I said, and I saw Josh through Ben's eyes: tall, strong, capable of everything. His perspective reminded me of how large we adults loom in a child's world, how much influence we have as a result.

He continued, "And do you know how much I love our family? You and Abby and Daddy?" He answered with his most common refrain: "I love you from Colorado to Russia to Boston, Massachusetts, to the moon." Then he added, "I'm never going to stop loving you, and I'm never going to let you die. You'll only die when I start dying. And I'm not going to smoke cigarettes." Inside, I smiled at this last statement, which reflects his understanding of how to live as long as possible--avoid the white sticks that make things grow that aren't supposed to. I affirmed the wisdom of this decision, assured him I loved him as much, and tucked him into bed.

Sometimes I'm amazed by how tender the moments following misbehavior can be. It's as if he knows he has blown it and craves the closeness that communicates we're okay. He rests in the security that our relationship is in tact, that his behavior hasn't pushed me away, that we're going to love each other forever and ever no matter what.

This is the blessing of family. We screw up, we make bad decisions, sometimes we even hurt each other--and we love each other anyway. Perhaps this is actually the point of family: to have a place to make mistakes--to fail--in the most dramatic and inglorious manner, and still have arms to climb into at the end of the day. No matter how frustrated or bewildered or discouraged we are in this crazy ride called parenthood, Josh and I have to be that place of security for the kids. We have to be a safe place for them to lose it. None of us holds it together perfectly all the time, and we can identify our family by those who allow us to lose it with grace--that is, by those who do not identify us by our messes but instead speak gently into the mess the reality of our better, truer selves.

Ben learns who he is from what we believe about him. If we believe he has the capacity to make better decisions, to exert self-control, to communicate respectfully, to work out his problems independently--even, or particularly, when he fails to do so--we call him into more of who he really is. If we accept defiant outbursts and tantrumy behaviors as reflections of who he is, then what will he believe about himself? As parents, we hold up a mirror to his behavior, but we hold up a mirror of faith, hope, and love that reflects his failures in the context of the extraordinary person we know him to be. Judgement, condemnation, and shame have no place here, for they would only fuel the fear he feels when he makes bad decisions--fear of himself, of his place in this world, of his ability to be good.

I do not do this perfectly, nor am I able to maintain a kind and gentle response in every situation. There are moments I react in anger, exasperation, frustration, and exhaustion. There are times I pull away emotionally, so spent from my interactions with a two and four-year-old working out their independence and identity on the anvil of my heart. I, too, am human. I, too, fall apart. But the amazing grace of it is that my children crawl back into my lap to whisper assurances of their unconditional love to me, their small voices echoing the love of my Father in heaven.

I love them--from Colorado to Russia to Boston, Massachusetts, to the moon. Always and forever. No matter what.

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