Growing in Understanding

For the last few months I've been reading a Proverb a day for the main part of my devotional time. When I first started this routine, I thought I would get bored quickly. It turns out that no matter how many times I've read a particular chapter before, I always seem to take away something new. I write a bunch of notes in the margins of my Bible. And since I revisit the Proverbs based on the date of the month, it's always encouraging to see the different lessons I have learned as time has passed. With that, I'd like to share my most recent and biggest take away from Proverbs.

Over and over again, I have read the word understanding. It stuck out to me in the verse Proverbs 17:10 where it says, "A single rebuke does more for a person of understanding than a hundred lashes on the back of a fool." As I have looked through the chapters of Proverbs, I find that I've actually underlined and remarked about many verses with this word understanding.

I've shared recently about the journey that the Lord has taken me on over the course of the last two years or so. I have gone from feeling like we should spank Amelia to we shouldn't spank because of my lack of self control. But even in that, I struggled with having reactions that didn't line up with the new path of parenting we had embarked on. And now arriving to the present, more often than not our discipline and responses towards our children's behavior are more thought out and intentional rather than being a big, emotional reaction. As I have thought this over the last week, I'm finding how crucial understanding has been in our parenting shift.

I think of my relationship with Danny and the amount of understanding that he has had towards me over the course of our relationship (married and not married years accumulated are over 11 years). He takes time to hear my thoughts even when we both know they are irrational. He listens carefully. Danny asks questions so that he can understand more fully where I'm coming from. This investment in our relationship makes me feel loved and cared for and heard. As he models understanding towards me, I do the same for him. Back and forth it goes. As those moments add up to fill one another's hearts, life happens and we hit bumpy patches. I say or do things that require him to call me out. Having a relationship foundation strong in understanding one another sure makes those moments of reproof easier to work through. I can take his criticism to heart because I know that he cares for me. He has shown it over and over again. If Danny didn't take the time to listen and care for me and ask questions meant to know my heart deeper, I would be very reluctant to hear his criticism. If he over-reacted emotionally towards my poor decisions, I would be more likely to blow him off and act even more foolish.

Of course, on the off day that we don't do the extra work of understanding each other, the opposite is not that we beat each other and "put lashes on the back of a fool". Likewise, the majority of our population of parents don't do that with their children. But imagine what it would be like as a child to have a parent verbally lash out over less-than-desirable behavior. Think about what it would be like for that child to be yelled and screamed at, to be told that they need to stop crying and just get over it. Think about what it would be like to always feel as if you were unheard and misunderstood. It's easy for me to think about because I was that kid. What I had to say as a child did not matter because I was just the child. In moments that I tried to verbally process how I was feeling, I was rarely empathized with. More often than not, I was silenced.

un·der·stand·ing /ˌəndərˈstandiNG/: (adj) sympathetically aware of other people's feelings; tolerant and forgiving. (noun) a mutual agreement, especially of a private, unannounced, or tacit kind.

Another reason it is easy for me to imagine a misunderstood child is because I've looked into the face of one. I know what it's like to angrily yell at Amelia in a moment of emotional reaction. I know what it's like to see her face when she feels completely abandoned and unheard. I see her face go from "Please help me, Mama!" to "We are not on the same team. Let's battle."

She's just like me... her emotions have a tendency to flip in a quick second. The instant that I am angry and lashing out at her she dishes it right back. I can lash out at her a thousand times with my tongue by speaking unkindly and angrily at her, demanding that she do what I say or else. I can grab things from her when she's not listening and just do stuff for her in an attempt to hurry routines along. I can do and say all those things but Amelia is not going to respond to me in a cooperative, understanding way. She isn't going to want to do anything for me or with me because she is now angry and feeling like we're in a battle.

But the moments that I choose to stop, get on Amelia's level, and just hear her, she melts into a puddle. When I ask her gentle questions -- Can you tell me what you're frustrated about? -- or empathize with her -- I know you don't want to do that right now. That must be really hard. -- she's just right there with me. She cries. She might even yell a lot. But she's rarely yelling at me if I have established my calm and strong control. She's going quickly with the emotion because she's 5. She is learning that it's ok to feel frustrated!! In this house, we are working hard to establish that it's acceptable to have feelings. It's great to express feelings. The key in this process is learning how to do it in a healthy way. In all honesty, this is something our whole family is learning!

"People with understanding control their anger;
    a hot temper shows great foolishness." Proverbs 14:29

After feelings are adequately expressed, we work together to find a solution for whatever the problem is. The problem can be anything from frustration over not getting to play with a particular toy to the fact that I'm setting a firm line about my decision over something. Whatever the case is, if I just take a moment to understand where Amelia is coming from, she is quick to realize that I am for her, that I am on her team, and I have everything under control. She realizes there's no battle to fight. Just like Danny's calm, loving responses over time have built up our marriage, so do my responses build up the relationship I have with each of my girls. As I've practiced this more consistently, I have noticed Amelia's heart growing in tenderness towards my correction. There have been so many times in the past where she would do the normal kid thing of asking over and over again or insisting on her way. But recently, as we all grow and change, she has started responding with, "Yes, Mama." or if she doesn't agree, she will calmly state her perspective and offer a compromise. It's a beautiful thing each time.

Now when I read Proverbs 17:10, I remember the value in taking time to understand my children. Each and every time I help them know that they are heard and cared for, we are forming a mutual respect for one another. Then, when criticism, discipline, or correction comes, it's from a place of deep understanding.

From there, we can do some great work together.


Coming Full Circle

Two years ago, Amelia was about to turn 3. This was the season of toddlerhood where I really started to recognize how much I could influence my kids. To put that plainly, I saw myself in Amelia more often than not. And I wasn't always pleased with what I saw. A lot of the raw emotion at that time was due to her age and all the developmental changes she was experiencing. But a good deal of it was also because I lacked self control. I yelled way too much. I slammed things. I got angry and everyone knew about it. Naturally, Amelia started copying me. Each time she acted like a mini-me, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew I didn't want her to become a tantrum-throwing adult. So why was I giving her this example? Even still, I kept on. 

No surprise when her behavior didn't change. We were scrambling trying to figure out how to discipline our toddler. Each day for a long while I would just cry and fret over these gigantic emotional outbursts and all the disobedience. So much yelling and screaming. I began looking into different methods and tactics of discipline... anything to give me structure on how to control our child. 

In the middle of my search, I was invited to a small gathering of women where an older woman shared her experiences as a young mom. She talked about how she disciplined her five children 25+ years ago. I had been looking forward to it because I was grasping at anything. Surely she would have some wisdom that could help me. During our time, she talked very sternly about disciplining God's way, using the rod, breaking our child's will, and making them obey. She quoted many Bible verses and I wrote notes frantically. She explained how when each of her babies were about 9 months old, she would hold them down in their crib until they went to sleep. At one point during the talk, she also demonstrated with a baby doll how to properly spank a child with a rod (she used a wooden spoon). She explained the importance of hitting them just hard enough that it stings but not so hard that you leave marks. And of course, not being angry while you do it. If they fought the discipline, they got more spankings. And as soon as you were done, you gather them in your arms and shower them with love and pray over them. She was matter of fact and that was that. This woman gave boundaries for when and where you spank, along with so much other information. 

It was presented so well. I really appreciated her honesty and I really did want to understand what she was sharing. Honestly though, we had been really wishy-washy about spankings during this time with Amelia. We just weren't sure about it all, especially with my tendency to over react emotionally and physically. 

How could I possibly not spank in anger when my self control was so weak?! I thought it over and over during her talk. As the other moms attentively listened and shook their heads and absorbed all this in, I figured I better at least try this structured discipline. This woman made it seem like I would be doing my children a huge disservice if I didn't spank! 

I left that day feeling confused but also determined. I didn't really feel great about spanking but nothing else worked before it so why not give it a try?

The next few months were awful. My angry reactions did not get any better. I spanked in anger more often than not. And I didn't always use a rod... sometimes it was my hands. I was getting more and more pregnant with Isla which meant I was very sore and weak. Amelia was growing and getting harder to hold and control during her spankings. Not only that, but she would often cry to me during and/or after spankings, "Mama! You say hitting isn't nice. Don't do that!" Months went by... Isla was born and I entered into this fog. Three kids, ages 3 and under, was a lot. I wrestled with my emotions in a deep, challenging way. Amelia turned 4 and got very verbal about how she was feeling. Again, no surprise there! But I just couldn't do it anymore. I could no longer spank Amelia. 

Danny didn't quite agree that we should give up on spankings. The only thing he could go off of was being raised in a home where spankings happened here and there. But he never experienced anger from his parents like I did. He knew full well that I had self-control issues. He saw the way this battle was hurting me and Amelia and our relationship. I told him I wanted to explore what it would look like to discipline our children from a more positive standpoint. I read lots of articles, blogs, Scripture, a few books... I brought text after text to him and we discussed the content. He began to understand more of my heart and supported me in finding a different way.

The more I read about gentle parenting and asked God to show me His way, the more I realized it was never about being in control of my child. Let's be real, I could sort of control her behavior with punishment. But I was and never will be in control of her heart. Guiding Amelia during this time was always supposed to be about being in control of myself and even more so, being Spirit controlled so that I could be a stable place for Amelia to explore these big emotions, test boundaries, and all the other toddler shenaningans! But this was the harsh reality: I couldn't even explore my own emotions in a healthy way! As I began seeking the Lord through prayer and Scripture, I discovered that so many of my emotional outbursts were trigger points from past trauma in my own life. These outbursts were putting on display my own emotional immaturity. I complained to the Lord and my close friends and anyone who would listen, WHY would God give ME, this hot mess of a mom, THREE GIRLS to raise? There is NO WAY I can do this! WHY WHY WHY?

For my good and His glory. 

Somewhere along the line, I realized there were more layers to dig up than what I could work on solo. I didn't have the right tools to accomplish this ideal parenting. I really did want to grow in self control. I wanted to be able to respond to my children in love rather than reacting in anger. I wanted to show them kindness and grace as they discovered this world. That's when counseling came to mind. Even while I knew I should begin, I didn't for a few more months. I kept reading information about gentle discipline and respectful parenting. Some of it soaked in and we implemented more and more of it all. Honestly though, the best thing I did during that time was getting into a routine with my personal Bible study time. And not even a set time each day... just being in the Word, every day throughout each day. I began creating habits that helped me connect to God in a deeper way. So as I hit those first layers, he tenderly walked with me and grew me in ways I didn't expect.

"Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives." 
Galatians 5:24-25

And now, we come full circle. Two years later, we are entering into that same developmental stage with Elsie. Those big emotions are flaring up in her and we have some really hard days. So much yelling and screaming. But a lot less of it is from me. More of my angry/anxious moments are controlled and stay within myself to process later in a healthy way rather than at the kids. Don't get me wrong... I screw up from time to time. I still yell. I still slam stuff. I'm human! But part of this change is knowing I am not defined by my mistakes. I can admit when I'm wrong and ask for forgiveness. Grace upon grace upon grace. I told a friend a few days ago that it's like I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. I see my growth. I also see how Amelia has changed. We have our hard days with her still. They are so few and far between though. This slow, steady progress acts as a reminder that we are moving forward and this hard work is worth it! And truly, I look forward to Isla being a three year old and seeing the work that God has done over the years.

I've been asked a lot about this journey I'm on. It seems that a lot of you are asking similar questions and wanting to grow in similar areas. In hopes of being helpful, I wanted to create a list of some of the readings and such that have been influential to me. I'll have them divided up by author. Their resource links will follow after that. I've even included a small excerpt from some of them so you can get a feel for what they're about before clicking over.

Bible Verses
"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

"Come and listen to my counsel.
I’ll share my heart with you
    and make you wise." Proverbs 1:23

"Without oxen a stable stays clean,
    but you need a strong ox for a large harvest." Proverbs 14:4

"A house is built by wisdom
    and becomes strong through good sense." Proverbs 24:3

"Fools vent their anger,
    but the wise quietly hold it back." Proverbs 29:11

L. R. Knost
Spare the Rod: The Heart of the Matter - "We accept that Jesus brought a new and better way, a way of the heart, “Not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3b), but don’t seem to want to acknowledge that better way with our children. We accept God’s grace and forgiveness for ourselves, but often don’t share those gifts with, and model them for, our children. But we are our children’s first taste of God. Is it any wonder people have such a hard time understanding grace and mercy and unconditional love when they may not have been taught those things by their earthly parents and don’t exercise them with their own children?"

Jesus the Gentle Parent - "In this examination of mainstream Christian parenting practices and the doctrinal beliefs behind them, best-selling author, L.R.Knost, debunks common cultural and theological beliefs about spanking, original sin, sin nature, submission, authority, obedience, breaking a child’s will, and more, along with providing grace-filled, gentle solutions to behavior issues."

The Gift of a Strong Willed Child - "While there’s no doubt that it’s a challenge having a child who seems to challenge everything, there are ways to work with them rather than against them to preserve and nurture their unique gifts. Maintaining a healthy parent/child relationship is vital as you work to find a balance between setting limits with your richly spirited child while not limiting their freedom to stretch and grow and develop into the person they were created to be."

The Problem with Punishment - "Punishment may be able to control a child’s behavior temporarily while they’re small or when they are in their parents’ presence, but it cannot control the person.  As with all humans, outward behavior is merely a reflection of our inner selves: our needs, our hurts, our emotional states."

Backtalk is Communication - "When a child backtalks, sometimes also referred to as mouthing-off or sassing, they are in the throes of a huge, internal maelstrom of emotion. Whatever they are reacting to in the moment, whether it’s being told ‘no’ about something or being asked to do or not do something, it is rarely those issues that are at the root of the problem. The moment at hand is just the tipping point causing a fissure in the child’s heart that lets out a bit of the steam inside. The real concern should be that there is, metaphorically, steam in the child’s heart to begin with."

Janet Lansbury
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame - "[This book] provides a practical, indispensable tool for parents who are anticipating or experiencing those critical years when toddlers are developmentally obliged to test the limits of our patience and love. Armed with knowledge and a clearer sense of the world through our children’s eyes, this period of uncertainty can afford a myriad of opportunities to forge unbreakable bonds of trust and respect."

Unruffled {podcast} - these are easy to listen to while driving or grocery shopping! Her voice is super sweet. Plus hearing different challenging behavior scenarios role played by her is really helpful!

Dr. Sears
Spanking - Three articles {10 Reasons Not to Hit Your Child, 8 Admonitions to Parents Who Chose To, and Signs You Need Professional Help}
Discipline & Behavior

Other random links! :)
Aha! Parenting
Practice Positive Discipline
Gentle Parenting

Thanks for reading! I love to dialogue about this topic so please comment and ask questions. Also, I'm a pretty open book if there are any more details of my story that you want to ask about. Please be respectful and kind in your responses as I know this topic can be hard for a lot of people.

We're in this together!