What Every Parent Needs To Know About Spanking

If you’re ever at a loss for how to piss a lot of people off in one fell swoop, criticize parents for spanking. That will do it every time. I don’t exactly understand it, but there are a lot of people who are really, really attached to the idea that spanking is a good thing and no amount of research, data or reasoning will convince them otherwise. Because “I was spanked and I turned out OK!”*

I should say upfront that I’m not an anti-spanking purist. I have swatted a child on the bum a time or two myself and don’t anticipate that being what they end up seeking counseling for. However, over the last couple of decades we’ve learned an enormous amount about how our neural system operates that we were not aware of before. And whatever your current ideas about spanking are, we now know things that our parents and grandparents didn’t about the design of the human body which every parent should be aware of before they decide to use spanking as a discipline method with their children.

The first thing you need to know is that when you spank a child, you trigger their autonomic fight or flight reaction. It’s automatic and the child has no control over it. You can train them to suppress signs of this neurological state such as crying, pulling away or facial expressions of distress, but the underlying physiological reaction will remain the same. The thing to understand about the fight or flight response is that it is the same whether you’re facing off with a deadly viper or a large adult with a belt in hand. Whether you think that a fight or flight response is an appropriate reaction to spanking or not makes not one whit of difference. It’s the way our fearfully and wonderfully made neurological system works and is not under a child’s control.

What happens in a fight or flight state is that our bodies are flooded with stress hormones which increase respiration and heart rates. We often begin to sweat. Hormones stimulate energy to be released to the muscles. When a person’s fight or flight response has been triggered, their hippocampus – the part of their brain responsible for rational thought, decision making and learning – is no longer fully connected to the rest of the brain. The primitive, reptilian part of the brain takes over, allowing us to take in more information through our senses and respond quickly, without having to stop and think. All of this is designed to give us the best chance of surviving in a dangerous situation.

This fight or flight response is programmed and we do not control it. And it activates just the same regardless of the threat being faced is real or not. The fact that you’re spanking a child and not trying to hunt and eat them doesn’t make a great deal of difference to your child’s neurological system, which is, like the rest of their body, more delicate and less fully developed than in an adult. So although it’s likely not your intention, when you threaten or spank your child, you are putting them into a neurological state designed to protect them in the event of a saber tooth lion attack. Which may not actually be the relationship dynamic you want to foster.

But even if you are one of those parents who believe that making your child afraid of you is a good thing, there’s the practical implication of sending your child into a fight or flight state to consider. As I mentioned above, one of the things that happens in this state is that the thinking, learning, reasoning part of your brain goes off line. Obviously this is completely counter-productive for parents hoping to teach a child something. To the extent that you are teaching them, you are creating an aversion response. So the child may develop an aversion to whatever it is which triggered the punishment but it will not actually teach them anything deeper than that.

The other problem is that triggering this fight or flight response excessively will cause the response to be activated more easily. Which makes sense on two levels. One is that because of brain plasticity, every time you activate a specific neural pathway, you make it stronger. The stronger a neural pathways is, the more easily the brain defaults to it. And if you’re living in an environment in which your life is regularly endangered, responding to danger quickly gives you the best chance of survival. But when it’s a parent triggering this response, this adjustment is maladaptive. Children who experience it are going to be more fearful, more anxious, more hyper-vigilant, etc. If it’s happening often enough or over a long enough period of time, a process called kindling starts in which the neural pathways become so excitable that they will engage even in the absence of any perceived threat. All of this increases the likelyhood that the child will go on to suffer from disorders like anxiety, OCD and depression because their brains slip into fight or flight mode too easily.

Those people who advocate to spank until the child is fully compliant and repentant, as certain “Christian” teachers claim should be the end result of a spanking, are actually engaging the next step of the body’s autonomic response to danger: collapse/freeze. Collapse is what happens after the fight or flight response fails to resolve the dangerous situation. You see this in animals when they are cornered by a predator and they respond by playing dead. The collapse response is meant to be a deterrent (most predators won’t eat already dead animals). It also provides some psychic protection to the animal from the experience of being cornered and eaten.

The way collapse works in the body is this: as I mentioned above, when in a fight or flight state, our body is flooded with hormones which cause a surge of energy. When we cross over to collapse, the body essentially turns off its responsiveness to those hormones and shuts the system down. At this point, the hypocampus as well as the parts of the brain responsible for memory creation are almost fully disengaged. Cellular metabolism and responsiveness to hormonal signals slows. The child is working on auto pilot. This is a normal, protective response designed to protect us from traumatic situations. Dealing with your own parents isn’t supposed to be a traumatic situation. Even if the kid’s mouthed off first.

If collapse works and the danger passes, the body then sets about returning its neurological system to a normal state. Remember, a collapse state is characterized by the disengagement of significant parts of the brain which now need to be brought back online. There’s also the issue of all those energy producing hormones and the energy itself which are still coursing through the body. And at the cellular level, metabolic functioning is greatly reduced in a collapse state as the brain has signaled the muscles not to use the excessive energy created in the fight or flight state.So all that energy needs to be discharged, mental focus needs to be regained, and normal cellular functioning needs to resume.

In animals this neurological reset process looks like shaking, running in circles, jumping around and engage in other behaviors to work off the energy producing hormones created in the fight or flight state. In humans, this discharge will often look like sobbing hysterically, shaking, moving, screaming, throwing or slamming objects and doing other things that parents generally don’t let their children do after a spanking. This means that the child’s nervous system never has the chance to return to a normal state. Stress hormones remain in their bloodstream long after the event has passed, focusing and learning takes more effort and cellular use of energy and response to hormonal signals remains muted.

As is the case when a child’s fight or flight response is triggered excessively, when a child is pushed to the point of collapse, that strengthens the neural pathways responsible for executing the collapse state, causing it to happen more quickly in response to lower and lower levels of stimulation. Children who are brought to the point of collapse repeatedly may enter into a persistent state of collapse where all of their reactions are muted and they are no longer fully engaging with the world around them. Parents who discipline this way will often believe that because their children are quiet, compliant and still, these are signs that the “discipline” is working. Children who experience this are at high risk for Complex (Developmental) PTSD and dissociative disorders.

Now, some of you are protesting that this all sounds rather alarmist and cataclysmic in light of the fact that we’re talking about spanking a child. It’s not like parents are holding their children over a pit of hungry hyenas and threatening to drop them in or beating them with baseball bats, after all. (Hopefully) But we must not forget that just like children’s bodies are more delicate than adults and require special care, their nervous system are also more delicate and require special care.

At any rate, like I said, I’m not an anti-spanking purist. I have swatted my kids on the bum now and again. But people who are strong proponents of spanking generally don’t understand what it is they are actually doing to their children. Yes, you can get a quiet, compliant, still child by spanking if that’s your goal. However it comes at the cost of doing often permanent damage to this amazing nervous system which God gave us. There are many, many other discipline methods that parents can use to actually teach their children, help them develop self-control and proper behavior without running the risk of messing up the functioning of their neurology.

If you are a parent who would like to learn about alternatives to spanking, below is a list of resources compiled by Tricia Wilson that you can use:

Websites

Books

  • Conscious Discipline by BeckyBailey, https://consciousdiscipline.com/?sT…
  • How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish https://goo.gl/9U9cHl
  • Scream Free Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool by Hal Runkel https://goo.gl/gW6SVB
  • Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm, and Collected by Susan Stiffelman goo.gl/qnCOeK
  • Parenting With Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids by Susan Stiffelman goo.gl/Mc7VTx
  • Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn goo.gl/n57O2D
  • Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Laura Markham goo.gl/RwPgFM
  • Heaven on Earth by Sharifa Oppenheimer goo.gl/8YYK6m
  • Beyond the Rainbow Bridge: Nurturing Our Children From Birth to Seven by Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley goo.gl/BLJfMU
  • Time In When Time Out Doesn’t Work by Jean Illsey Clarke goo.gl/Z4OAqj
  • Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers by Deborah McNamara and Gordon Neufeld goo.gl/z7DOsY
  • 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phelan goo.gl/k30E45
  • The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis goo.gl/WecbdJ
  • No Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson goo.gl/HYYROi
  • Parenting From the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive by Daniel Siegel goo.gl/3QAITW
  • Playful Parenting: An Exciting New Approach to Raising Children That Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Confidence by Lawrence Cohen goo.gl/lUibDP
  • The No-Cry Discipline Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Good Behaviour Without Whining, Tantrums, and Tears by Elizabeth Pantley goo.gl/FK0tPb

*My 21 year old son has the perfect snarky response to the people who the “I turned out OK” argument in favor of spanking: “you think it’s ok for full grown adults to hit small children. Clearly you didn’t turn out that ok.”

 

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Stop Arguments Online Like a Mom

My husband is completely convinced that there are Jews somewhere in my Polish lineage. Because three of my great joys in life are being thrifty, complaining and arguing. I tell him that this must mean that there are Jews somewhere in his Irish lineage. The Irish filtered out the cheap part, I explained. But he thinks it must come from somewhere around Ethiopia on his African side. Which would explain his reluctance to embrace the fine stereo-typically Jewish trait of thrift, that part of Africa being home to long lines of kings and priests and all.

So we wait with anxious anticipation to see if our children will inherit our likely fictitious Jewish heritage in rudely stereotypical ways. So far, the one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that 4 of the 5 have definitely have a love of arguing. Which could be genetic or could be a fulfillment of the mother’s curse – “I hope that one day you have children just like you!” (Don’t use the mother’s curse, btw. It’s not a nice thing to say to your children. You’re telling them you don’t like them. Unless you’re cursing them over things like repeatedly unrolling the toilet paper into the toilet. Then, you know . . . the universe understands. And so will your kid one day.)

Our kids are kind of strangely spaced. We had our first two 4 years apart, so they mostly argued with us instead of each other. In fact, my older son told me recently that when he was little he was convinced that his dad and I were the smartest people in the world. Because he’s very perceptive, of course. So he decided that if he could outsmart one of us, that would make him the smartest person in the world. So basically like Hollywood and award shows, he made up an award in his head that he intended to bestow on himself. And I was like, “wow. Your childhood is suddenly making much more sense to me now.”

But then we had two girls 17 months apart. Which is a fairly common spacing for kids, for reasons that I’m not sure entirely justify the actual experience of having two children 17 months apart. I mean, it has its positives, certainly. But it’s not without difficulties. As is to be expected when your body grows two little humans in parasite fashion so close together. But there are certain common relationship dynamics you see more often with children who are 17 months apart. In fact, once you know the signs, you can recognize children who are 16-19 months apart just by watching them out in public together. It’s true. On more than one occasion, I have approached a parent and correctly identified their children as about 17 months apart myself.

All you have to do is look for two children who are similar or the same size who will not stop arguing dramatically with each other and a parent who is just barely keeping them under control. Sure, all children argue, but kids 17 months apart seem to have a particular affinity for arguing incessantly. It’s a thing. And of course my daughters are Trotters, so they argue incessantly with great gusto, creativity and commitment.

I have literally witnessed conversations where they have all but come right out and said, “I’m bored. Would you like to argue with me?” To which the other responded with “sure! Let me say or do this incendiary thing that always gets you going! Will that work?”

Once, my middle daughter came to me in tears holding her little fist in front of her. She wailed, “Michaela broke my pretend pinwheel!”

I suggested that since it was a pretend pinwheel, she should pretend to fix the pinwheel. She scrunched up her little face with concentration and then announced (screamed) that she didn’t know how to fix it. It was still broken. So I suggested that she imagine herself a new one. Again, the concentration and then more tears. “Now it’s the wrong color!”

On many occasions I witnessed them arguing over who got more of the pretend soda or cookie or cake. These girls put their all into this shit. They don’t do it as often as they did when they were younger, but we’re expecting that to change when they hit their teens. It should be quite a show. Maybe we’ll put cameras all over the house and turn it into a show. Make it a pay-per-view thing. Pay for their college tuition.

As you can imagine, this incessant arguing can get old. Even for someone who can literally write essays with a small child sitting on her head. And because they’re Trotters, they are also extremely passionate. People can get hurt if it carries on too long. PTSD triggering screaming, hitting and bumping around may ensue. And sometimes someone does veer into out-of-bounds territory which is never pleasant or easy to recover from. Stopping them from arguing is impossible. I mean, kids need to have their fun too. But being able to consistently bring an argument to an end quickly, on demand, without escalating the situation or subjecting yourself to their bullshit is a necessity.

I have a super simple method for doing just that, even when your kids are incredibly stubborn (another stereotypical Jewish trait all Trotters share). Not only will it work on your kids (maybe. They’re all different, apparently), it can easily be modified work when dealing with arguments you’re invited to on social media. Here it is: I tell them to shut up. And then I make loud, ugly noises every time they continue trying to speak. And when they continue trying to argue, I chase them off, waving my arms wildly around them, in different directions, while making loud, ugly noises.

Eventually they harrumph and move on to doing something else that doesn’t involve arguing. Or they continue arguing with the air while exiling themselves to someplace where nobody has to hear them. And the whole time, I refuse to consider or reply to any of their arguments or attempts to turn me against their sister. Because I don’t care about their stupid argument, I just want them to shut up and I will not allow them to get a word in edgewise until they stop with the arguing. Completely.

So, how does this translate into arguments online? Well, your best bet is to ignore them; especially when you’re not directly involved in the disagreement already. Don’t go getting into arguments just because you can’t resist the urge to join in an argument. But when someone is insistent on arguing with you and you no longer believe that they are working in good faith or just don’t want to have to deal with stupid right then, make them shut up. Delete their comment if it’s on your wall. Refuse to be baited into responding. Don’t even engage with their arguments, which have been addressed many, many, many times before. Insult them and then turn off the notifications. Tell them you’re going to turn off the notifications before you do it too. Be so weird, obnoxious, rude or outrageous that they use your behavior as an excuse to disengage and shut up. Let them think you’re a jerk and a lunatic. Because let’s face it – we are dealing with people who think that good is bad and bad is good. So who cares what they think of you? It does get to the point where arguing is leading nowhere good AND you don’t really care about their stupid arguments. You just need them to stfu in your space.

And you know what? People who like to argue can take it. It’s not going to scar them for life if you’re rude or weird or just delete everything you can and ignore the rest. You’re dealing with full grown adults or at least people who are pretending to be full grown adults. I mean, yeah, it might seem rude to just make people shut up, unilaterally. But if they like to argue that much, they’ll probably just move on to complaining about you. It’s another of life’s great joys, after all. I always encourage my kids to complain about me with each other and to their friends. You should expect the complainers you deal with to do likewise. So, really, you’re doing the person who won’t stop arguing a favor by giving them something to complain to their friends about and bringing them closer together.

Jesus Saved Our Christmas Dinner

We have a seating problem in our home. Well, two of them actually. The first is that our chairs don’t match and the folding chairs have all lost their stuffing. It’s not very Martha Stewart-ish. Or comfortable. The second is that I have 3 girls under the age of 8. Who all have very strong opinions about where they ought to sit at dinner. And those opinions change nightly. (Yes, yes, I know – each person should have their own seat that they sit in every night. Please, feel free to show up at my house for dinner each night to execute that plan. I’d be mighty appreciative and the best of luck to ya.)

I almost had the whole thing fixed this summer when I got the idea to have the kids basically draw straws. I marked the tips of 5 sticks with a color. Each color corresponded to a spot at the table. The color of the stick you drew told you which spot you would sit in. The only trouble was the 2 year old hadn’t actually agreed to and didn’t care to understand this plan. So if she wanted to sit in a spot one of her sisters had pulled a stick for, all hell broke lose. If I managed to get the baby to chose a spot first, she would often simply change her mind part-way through. So whatever. We’re back to our nightly game of “who’s going to sit where and who’s going to be upset about it?” It doesn’t happen every night, but often enough. In fact, on occasion a child will even storm off and refuse to eat when a settlement to their liking is not reached. Depending on what we’re having for dinner that night this can be a good thing because, you know – more for me. But not for Christmas dinner. So when my most emotional, dramatic daughter stormed off right before Christmas dinner due to a seating dispute, I figured I ought to go and fetch her.

One of the things which I am keenly aware of during the holidays is how easy it is for special occasions to be ruined by conflict between parents and kids. The kids are wound-up and hyper and probably a little overwhelmed and the parents are stressed and busy and feeling insufficiently appreciated. It’s very easy for both parents and children to end up behaving worse than usual. Which is clearly all the kid’s fault but I suppose someone has to be the grown-up, so it might as well be the parents. As much as I wanted to go upstairs and yell and rant and drag my daughter downstairs to sit and sulk in her seat at the table, I don’t particularly care to have this remembered as the Christmas mom ruined. So I want up to her room where she was calming down by doing math problems (seriously – this is one of the ways she calms herself down – by doing math problems). I sat on her bed near her and thought for a minute. Finally I asked her, “do you love God?”

A nod.

“Do you want to make him happy?”

Another nod.

“Do you know that Jesus is God?”

Hesitation and then a nod.

“Did you know that Jesus once talked about picking which spot to sit at when you go to dinner?”

She looked up from her math, gave me a slightly dubious look and a head shake.

“He did – seriously. He said that when you go to a meal, you shouldn’t try to sit in the best spot. You should sit in the worst spot. Because if you pick the best spot, someone else might come along who is supposed to sit in that spot and they’ll make you move. And then you’ll feel bad. But if you pick the worst spot, then if you ever have to move it will be because it’s your turn to sit in a better spot and then you’ll be happy.”

“Yeah, well – no one else does that.”

“Your brothers do. You don’t see them getting upset over where they sit, do you?”

Head shake. She switched from math problems to writing random words.

“Besides, you want to be loving don’t you?”

Nod.

“You have to actually do things to be loving. It’s not enough just to feel it. That’s what Jesus was trying to teach us – how to actually be loving. Like he said that we should put ourselves last because people always try to put themselves first and then we’re always mad at each other and fighting. We keep doing it because we want our way and keep trying to fight to get it. But it doesn’t work, does it? Besides, fighting’s no fun and it makes people feel bad. You like playing with your sisters when you’re not fighting, right? But you guys spend an awful lot of time fighting with each other. You can’t do anything about what your sister does – no matter how mad you get or how hard you try. You might as well decide for yourself that you’ll do it the way Jesus said to do it. I mean, God made this whole life we’re living – he might have a pretty good idea about how to do it right, don’t ya think?”

Sheepish nod.

“Heck, wouldn’t it be nice if after a while you didn’t feel like you had to fight all the time? Besides, I have a secret – it turns out that the last spot is usually the best spot. You get to see and learn a lot of interesting things and meet interesting people when you go last. If you go last and just pay attention, you’ll see what I’m talking about.”

She stopped her writing, sat looking thoughtful for minute and then agreed to come back down to eat with us. As we left her room she grabbed on to my waist.

“It’s hard. Doing things the way God says. It’s really hard. But just at the beginning. After a while you figure out that God’s ways actually are better. And then it’s really easy. Much easier than doing things your own way ever was. It’s only hard for a little while.”

So drama girl and I went back to Christmas dinner, hand in hand. And I made her brother move so she could sit next to me.

(Now before anyone is tempted to be impressed, y’all ought to know that last week my almost 8 year old picked baby Jesus up from the nativity set and said, “I forget – who is this baby supposed to be?” Jeeze.)

*This is a repeat from a few years back. The kids don’t fight nearly as fiercely about seating arrangements anymore. But our chair situation is still all jacked up. Kitchen chairs are expensive, yo.

Good Luck With That “Normal” Thing

Perhaps you have heard that I have some children. Entirely more than a respectable woman ought to have, in fact. I have even heard tell that there are those who point to my old woman living in a shoe lifestyle as evidence that I may be a bit touched in the head. Sad. But true. Fortunately for me, it turns out that being a bit touched in the head is pretty much a prerequisite for good parenting, so it’s all worked out just fine.

At any rate, two of my children are currently man-boys who are 20 and 16 and completely awesome. Not that I’m biased or anything. You’d think they were completely awesome if you met them. Although you’d probably be glad you weren’t responsible for raising them.

So recently my 20 year old expressed his concern that I was often excessively harsh with his 16 year old brother. And that this might cause the 16 year old to think it was OK to be excessively harsh with the 5 year old. And the 5 year old has made it clear to everyone that she is the reason for the existence of the entire universe, so this constituted a threat to the well being of all that is.

Now, the thing you need to understand about the 16 year old is that he is, at all times, right. He knows it. I know it. Everyone who knows him, knows that he’s always right. Except when he gets stuck in his own head or is being irrational. In which case, you pretty much have to drag him kicking and screaming by his hair out into the light of day to wake him up. When he was a kid, I used to give his teachers very simple, specific instructions for how to successfully correct him. Those who did not listen paid the price.

So, I called Mr. Always Right over and said, “your brother here is concerned that I am excessively harsh with you sometimes.”

He, of course, looked completely confused, laughed, and checked to see if we were just pulling his leg. (Always a distinct possibility in our home.) ‘”Dude, I’m going to need some examples to go on here,” was his response. He was clearly completely befuddled. As was his brother at this point.

Now, as I have indicated, the 20 year old is male. So obviously he can be really dense. But mostly he’s incredibly sensitive to everything and everyone around him. Which means that the older he gets, the more subtle the touch required to move him. Anything more than a persistent firm nudge feels like an armed assault to this one.

“I never talk to you the way I talk to your brother sometimes, right?” I asked the 20 year old, who looked appalled at the very idea. “You would feel terrible if I talked to you like that, but obviously your brother isn’t experiencing me as particularly harsh.”

I could practically see it dawning on the 20 year old how different his brother actually was from him. Which, as well as they know each other, one would think he would already know. But obviously it had never occurred to the 20 year old that something as basic as our emotional responses could be completely different from one person to another. After all, our emotional responses happen pretty automatically. And we all experience the exact same emotions. So it’s very easy to assume that your normal emotional responses to the world are normal for human beings generally rather than for you particularly.

I suspect that many, if not most, if not all of us make the error of assuming that we are normal and therefor all seemingly normal people must be pretty much like us. In fact, I was in my mid-30s when it really sank in that maybe – just maybe – I wasn’t actually normal. Me. The woman who has so many children that they’ve basically created their own subculture together. The woman who is in Mensa and married to a black guy and swears while discussing theology and doesn’t own sweats or a proper pair of athletic shoes. I actually thought I was like baseline normal. (Obviously I have some masculine tendencies.) I’ll wait until you’re done laughing to go on. . . . Continue reading

Explaining God to a Child

A lot of Christians have a strong desire to ensure that their children follow them in the faith. And to that end, a great deal of energy is expended in teaching them what to believe. Which, to a certain extent is OK. Our faith is not endlessly malleable and there are core beliefs that have been carefully passed down through the millennia for a reason. Yet knowing what to believe about God is very different from actually knowing God. And ultimately, it is knowing God that makes a person’s faith stick. So that’s what I want for my kids and what I focus my attention on when it comes to passing on the faith.

Of course, anyone who has tried explaining God to a child knows that there’s a very good reason we tend to fall back on explaining doctrines and telling stories. God is not very easily put into words. So, as someone with a bit of a way with words and a couple decades of experience trying to explain God to children, allow me to share what’s worked for me. Feel free to steal as you see fit. 😉

What is God?

God is not a thing. Usually we say that God is spirit. Can you imagine what a person would be without their body? That’s a bit like what it means to be a spirit. Except God is much more than just one person. Try to imagine if you could take the spirit of every person and put it together to make one spirit that included every person’s spirit in it. God’s like that, except with the spirit of everything that exists added in. And then a bit more because God is bigger and more than everything that exists even.

The bible says that God is love. So you love me and I love you. Here – let’s look into each other’s eyes and you think how much you love me and I’ll think about how much I love you. Do you feel that? That’s God right there between us.

On God’s Omnipresence

God is like air. Air is all around you and it’s all around me and every other person alive. In the bible is says that “in God we live and move and exist”, just like we live and move and exist in the air that’s everywhere. I breathe air in so there’s air inside of me. And you have air inside of you. But the air in me doesn’t take air away from you. It’s all the same air, but there’s still plenty of air for all of us. And that’s what it’s like with God as well.

Sometimes we notice air. When it moves we feel it. Most often, we don’t even think about it. But it’s always there. And it’s always keeping us alive. In fact, it was keeping people alive for a long time before people knew what it was or why we needed it. And God is the same way.

On God’s Omnipotence

Now, air is a thing. It’s made of little bitty atoms and molecules. But air isn’t alive. So far as we can tell, it doesn’t feel or think or know what it’s doing. God, on the other hand, is alive. God does think and feel and know what he’s doing. So imagine if the air was able to know and feel and watch everything it touched. It would know what was happening on the outside and on the inside of everything. That’s kind of what it’s like to be God.

On Prayer

Even though God is everywhere and knows everything, God isn’t rude. God’s not going to come barging into your head without a very good reason. Instead, God waits for an invitation. And that’s what happens when you pray – you invite God in to hear what you have to say and think. And then if you get quiet and listen, sometimes you’ll even hear something back from God. It’s a little weird and sometimes you’ll feel like you’re just talking to yourself. And that’s OK. God made you to be an awful lot like him, so talking to God isn’t always going to be all that different from talking to yourself. But sometimes, you will know that God is speaking to you. Usually because what you hear touches your heart or surprises you or even takes your breath away. And when that happens, try to remember it. Because sometimes God is pretty quiet and when that happens, it helps to remember what was said before.

Who is Jesus?

Remember how I said that God is spirit? That’s kind of confusing, isn’t it? Even if we pray and think about these things, it’s still awfully hard to understand. God knows this. So, when the time was right, Jesus was born. Jesus was a human being just like us with a body and a family and a mind that worked just like ours. But his spirit – what we are when we don’t have a body – was God. Jesus shows us what it looks like when God lives as a human being. So we can see what God looks like, acts like and cares about when he exists not as air or spirit, but as a human being.

Jesus shows us the truth about God. Because of him, we have a way to examine God. Let’s say that you tell me that you prayed and found God to be mean, harsh and angry. And I say that I pray and found God to be kind, gentle and loving. How can we know which is right? Well, we can look at Jesus. Sometimes Jesus was angry and harsh. But mostly he was kind, gentle and loving. So maybe there are times when God seems angry and harsh, but mostly we can expect him to be kind, gentle and loving.

Or let’s say that someone tells you that it’s really important to God that we dress a certain way or not listen to certain music or not spend time with people who aren’t like us. And they even have a bunch of bible verses to show you that this is true. Well, you can look at Jesus and see that he never showed any interest in how people dressed or what they did for fun and he spent time with all sorts of people. So even though someone might have a bunch of bible verses that they are using to tell you these things, you can be pretty sure that they are confused. Because of Jesus.

Not only that, but have you ever thought that maybe God didn’t really understand what you are dealing with? Like maybe God’s on the outside looking in but doesn’t really get how hard life is sometimes or what it’s like to really struggle? I think that sometimes. But Jesus went through all the things that we go through. He was called names and got sick to his stomach and felt alone and misunderstood. He got hungry and crabby and was treated unfairly and wasn’t always allowed to do what he wanted. So we know that God actually does know what it’s like. He really can understand what we go through. And now we know that because we know that Jesus went through all those things as well.

Allow Me to Share the Holy Grail of Parenting

209750_1846076945281_1961977_oAfter 5 kids and 19 years of parenting, I have finally discovered the Holy Grail of parenting. The one thing you need to know in order to lighten your load and teach them to be responsible, thinking, healthy people with good judgment. As early and as often as is safe and feasible, start repeating these words to yourself: “meh. I’m sure they’ll figure it out eventually.”

Seriously. Try it. It’s a long term strategy, but it works. And it’s much, much, much easier than continually forcing your will on another human being who is clearly lacking in judgment. I know it’s hard to believe, but kids are capable of learning on their own. They do think about things. And it’s much easier for them to admit when they are wrong when they don’t have someone standing over them demanding that they do so.

If there’s one mistake I made as a mother, it’s that I have a tendency to over-teach. I’m a good teacher and I know a lot, so I mostly missed the downside to this habit. While me providing in-depth, detailed instructions on everything makes it easy for my kids to learn, it also means that they view me as a walking instruction/information dispenser and so have no responsibility to figure anything out on their own. If I’m not available to provide the required instructions, might as well just wait until I am available to deal with the issue.

Shockingly, the one thing they did figure out for themselves was how to use my teacherly impulses to manipulate me. They all know that I have a Pavlovian response to the sound of a question being asked and will automatically launch into a long-winded (but interesting) answer or story when asked one. Which comes in handy at bedtime, chore time or whenever they want attention from me. It’s entertainment and a diversion tactic all in one! But in the meantime, my 16 year old would claim that the kitchen was a mess because he wasn’t sure where anything went and the world will fall apart if he puts the cake pan in the wrong cabinet.

I’m still susceptible to “ask mom a question” tactic, but I figure that at worst they’ll end up being good listeners and there aren’t nearly enough of those. However the one thing I wish I would have understood better 19 years ago is how to use a lighter touch in instructing my kids. If I had it to do over again, I would leave more room for my kids to reach their own conclusions, do dumb things and take time to learn some of life’s lessons for themselves.

I think we underestimate how competent our kids actually are at this process learning how to be human. We forget that they think about what we say and they want to be good so long as it doesn’t mean giving up on having fun. They are capable of self-correction. Maybe not in the moment, but over time. They want to find solutions to their problems. And if you can learn to refrain from stepping in to correct and direct them at every turn, they will figure it out . . . eventually.

Seriously. My teen even started wearing a jacket to the bus stop. Eventually.

Parenting Genius

Honest to goodness, there’s nothing that makes me happier than some good parenting. Those times when you or someone else says something to a kid that is honest and real and makes the world a little more manageable for them to navigate. The things that they’ll repeat to themselves when they need some wisdom or encouragement or a kick in the pants later.

If the world worked the way it should, the news would include highlights of parenting genius that anonymous parents spouted off that day rather than reports about celebrities boinking and abandoning each other. But I suppose the logistics of such a thing would be a nightmare. Which is why we all know that J Lo and Casper just broke up, but have no clue that this afternoon a woman down the street said things that helped her child be less afraid of dying one day.

This is why I’m a big fan of Shit My Dad Says. I think I mentioned it once before, but for those who missed it, Shit My Dad Says is the creation of a writer with a sharp eye about his great, foul mouthed dad. It’s funny and wise and much more profound than anything with that much swearing and crude humor has a right to be. His father is a parenting genius, if you ask me.

Anyhow, GQ has a Shit My Dad Says post up for Father’s Day that I loved and wanted to pass on to y’all. The dad talks like I do if I’m not careful, so there’s lots of swearing involved. But if you mind that, you probably aren’t reading my blog. Anyhow, the context is that the son froze up during a big baseball game and lost the game for his team:

My dad walked down two rows from the metal stands and tossed a soda he was drinking in the garbage. He headed toward the parking lot a hundred feet away and I followed him in silence until we got to the car.

“You pitched well,” he said.

“I lost the game for us,” I said, then burst into one of those cries where all available tears and mucous shoot out of your eyes and nose at once.

“Now hold on,” he said.

“Don’t try and tell me I didn’t lose the game for us,” I said, as a snot bubble formed in both nostrils.

“Shit, I was there son. That ball flew out of your hand like you were setting a fuckin’ dove free. You got no argument here.”

“Then what are you gonna say? I know it’s just a game, okay?” I said, trying to calm my heaving breaths.

“What I was gonna say was, your coach is full of shit. It ain’t ‘just a game.’ This is a big goddamn deal,” he said, leaning his back up against the passenger door.

Continue reading

Suffer Us Little Children

What parent doesn’t want to be a better parent to their kids?

And what Christian doesn’t desperately wish to be truly humble? (OK, almost no Christian actually wants any such thing, but play along with me here.)

What if I told you that I have the secret to attaining these two highly desirable goals all in one fell swoop? Well, I’d become a viral sensation and finally be discovered and recognized as the spiritual genius I am, of course!

Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Ah. Sorry, sometimes I just need a good laugh. (You may not find me so amusing, but from time to time I crack myself up. It always makes me happy to know that someone thinks I’m funny.)

Anyhow, in all seriousness, somewhere along the line I picked up a spiritual habit that actually does humble me far more than I want to be humbled. And it does make me a better, more compassionate parent. And I will share it with y’all in case any of you are stupid brave enough to want to follow in my footsteps and enjoy the horrible joyous spiritual misery benefits. (I’m feeling really up on life today. Can you tell?)

It goes back to something Jesus said:

“[Jesus] called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Now, the bible is filled with references to God as father. Which would make us children. But it’s often not a particularly helpful concept because we tend to want God the Father to be a grandiose, super hero version of dad rather than a real dad.

So we think that being dad, God is supposed to protect us from all harm. Which, as anyone who has ever watched Finding Nemo knows, doesn’t actually work in real life. And we want God to be the dad who makes sure his kids have everything they need. Which is no doubt what the father of every child who has ever gone to bed hungry wants as well. We want God to move heaven and earth, changing time and the rules of life itself if that’s what it takes to make things all better. Even though heaven, earth, time and life itself all work the way they do because God made them work that way, presumably for good reasons.

The truth is that we don’t actually want God the Father. We want God the personal body guard/Santa Claus/magician.

In real life, dads do provide and protect, to the best of their ability. But mostly they tell you to stop jumping on the couch. They spin you in circles and tickle you and make fart jokes. They refuse to give into your temper tantrums and tell you to wait your turn and share with your sister. They teach you how life works and strategies for coping with its difficulties. They tell you stories and give advice and keep your secrets.

Once you understand this, Jesus’ teaching that we must become like little children takes on a whole new flavor. In fact, what I’ve learned is that when God is not responding to me the way I think he should, it’s because he’s dealing with me like a real father. And I’m acting like a real child. Which is hard to see when I think I’m the righteous heroine in distress and God’s supposed to be my father cum super hero/Santa Claus/magician.

For example, this spring, I realized that my ongoing anger at God was very much like when my kids would attempt to bend me to their will by throwing the world’s biggest temper tantrum. And that much of my time in the desert was basically God using my own super easy, super effective parenting trick on me. He was just standing by, waiting out my hurt and anger so we could both start to move forward.

And it makes me appreciate how much God puts up with from me. How rarely he chastises me for my anger and instead offers comfort and understanding. He bends down to my height and listens to my howls of pain and outrage and tells me I’m going to be OK. Then when I won’t be comforted, he withdraws a little to wait until I’m ready.

But he never mocks me. He doesn’t tell me to shut up and show some appreciation for everything he does for me. He never holds the things I say in anger against me. He doesn’t walk away in disgust. He doesn’t yell at me or tell me to pull myself together and grow up. He doesn’t get angry at me for not showing proper respect. He just loves me through it until I figure things out for myself.

Realizing how much pain I am in when I throw my spiritual little kid temper tantrums, forces me to look at my children’s temper tantrums with much more compassion. I can see how ridiculous they are sometimes being. But even when they know they’re being kind of ridiculous, they are in so much pain that they just can’t help themselves.

So I do for them what God does for me. I don’t mock, ridicule or yell at them. I offer comfort and if they won’t take it, I just stand by and wait it out. I understand that as annoying as a temper tantrum throwing little kid is, it’s much worse to be in that much distress.

Right now I’m in a period of waiting. My life is a disaster. Beyond repair, so far as I can tell. Yet I’ve had multiple people who I trust pass on messages telling me that it’s just a matter of time. God has very good plans for me. But he’s working on his own schedule and he’s not going to deviate from it, even though it’s painful for me.

This is very frustrating because every time I get upset and beg God to step in and help me and I get angry about my life, I am forcibly reminded of how my kids pester me when I tell them to wait. How they will come to me multiple times a day demanding to know why it’s not their birthday yet. Or asking, “are you ready yet?” over and over. Or wanting to know when their stomach flu will pass.

Frankly, my kids’ inability to wait irritates me like nothing else. Realizing that I’m in the same boat and that the waiting is unbearably painful both humbles me and gives me new compassion for my kids. I’m not sure I’ve really understood before how much I’m asking from them when I tell them to wait. Which has forced me to be more judicious about when I elevate my priorities over theirs and how long I ask them to wait.

It also makes me more cognizant of the burden of their trust. I cannot ask them to wait patiently if I cannot be trusted to do what I’ve said I will. I’ve learned to make very, very few promises or commitments with my kids. It drives them nuts, but then when I say I will do something, they can have full confidence that it will happen, no matter how long it takes.

I don’t honestly like the idea that my problems, which from a human perspective are not small, are so small in the eyes of God. It makes me feel less than. No one likes to feel less than. Like a lot of us, if you tell me that my problems are childish or my pain is caused by my immaturity, I feel angry and humiliated.

But this reveals a flaw in my thinking; God is not a man who would look on a child’s problems as foolish and inconsequential. The harm done to a child can stay with them for a lifetime. He’s not the sort of parent who demands that his child takes his perspective for their own. He respects our limits and doesn’t treat us with disrespect because we are not as mature, powerful and capable as he is. God asks us to be humble, but never, ever, ever wants us to be humiliated by our status as children.

We’re children. We have children’s problems. What Love knows, that we too often do not, is that children’s problems are real. The fact that we, from our vantage point as adults see them as foolish and unworthy of care or concern comes from our lack as parents. Yes, sometimes our kids frustrate us and sometimes the gap between their distress and the magnitude of the actual problem makes us laugh. But we should never shame them or humiliate them for seeing things from a child’s perspective.

Part of what I have learned from humbling myself enough to see that I really am like a child to God who really is like a father is how much is required of us as parents. We speak of child’s problems as if they are small, foolish things. But as I said, the harm done to a child can stay with them for a lifetime. And too often parents minimize the harm done to their children because they are unwilling to be strong, brave and sacrificial enough to help them.

Think of all the children who are abused by parents who believe they have the right (if not the obligation) to inflict pain on them for their own good, when really the parents are just too immature and out of control to handle the demands of parenting. Or the kids who seek help only to be turned away by adults who are unwilling to risk ruining a reputation or threaten a comfortable family dynamic. Or all the kids who are hurting and in trouble who get met with “tough love” or ignored by adults who want the child to carry all of the burdens placed on them rather than facing their own failures or disrupting long existing ideas about how things are done.

Then think of what God did for his hurting children on the cross.

When God asks us to humble ourselves to be little children, he’s not trying to humiliate us. He’s asking us to give him the chance to be the sort of parent that we actually need. To be the parent who is trustworthy and won’t turn away in our time of need. To be the parent who comforts rather than shames us. To be the parent who takes our hurts seriously rather than mocking them. To be the parent who lifts our burdens rather than telling us to buck up under them.

Which all sounds nice, but there’s a great deal at stake here. You see, it’s very hard to parent when you were never parented well yourself. No matter how much you love your children, when your back’s against the wall, your automatic response will come out of your brokeness rather than your love.

Children are vulnerable. It’s easy to hurt them without ever meaning to. And if you are unwilling to humble yourself, to allow God to parent you and show you the way, you may cause harm that can’t be undone in this lifetime. Which is why Jesus ended his words about becoming like little children with a promise and a warning for us:

“Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

When Parents Disagree

What I’m about to say flies in the face of nearly everything you’ve ever heard on the subject of how to handle disagreements between parents. But it’s my blog and my life and I can do that when I see fit, right? And on the topic of how parents should handle disagreements between them, I have no problem saying that the standard advice is horrid and wrong.

So, no doubt you have heard many times that while you and your partner may have disagreements when it comes to parenting, it is important that you present a unified front to your kids. Which is, if I may be so bold as to say this, utter bullshit. And if you take it too far, it can be damaging to your kids to boot. Allow I to explain.

No two people will ever agree on everything. And inevitably when dealing with something as challenging and complex as parenting, sharp disagreements will arise. This is reality. And unless reality is so ugly that it would traumatize your children, you are never doing any favors to your kids when you hide reality from them. At some point they are going to have to head out into the world and find their way. So they need to have some idea of what they will be dealing with and some idea of how they can manage.

Pretending that you and your spouse are in total agreement when it comes to parenting is nothing more than hiding reality from your children. And it’s totally unnecessary. Continue reading