We’re sitting at the table, surrounded by a morning’s worth of Valentine craft scraps. Alex is in the middle, tapping his pencil ferociously, fidgeting his feet, shaking his head. I’ve asked him to write neatly. To copy sentences, instructions really.
He is writing, over and over, my paraphrasing of Do Unto Others. But if I’m being honest, the way this morning has gone, it could have just as easily have been: Don’t be a jerk.
All I think about is writing (the action of), he says, which is his way of letting me know that these letters he is copying, these words he is stringing together, over and over, they are punctuated sentences on a page, but nothing more.
He hands me his first attempt. It has a hole from the pencil jabbing through the center of the paper. The last sentence is a jumble of giant letters spelling out words plucked from the original sentence, but not at all what he was told to copy: I LOVE A GOD LOVES ME, punctuated with no less than seven exclamation points and question marks.
Okay, we’ll do this again. I tell him, and now he is laying on my floor, again, pencil tapping, up and down the sides of my hamper.
The line between discipline and exasperation is, so, inexhaustibly, fine.
Sometimes, I don’t know which side I’m on, or if my parental foot is so fat and oafish that I just barrel down the middle of it, daily.
I go about thinking I’m helping and instructing, when I’m at the same time, by the very same parental weight, I’m crushing something that cannot be repaired by my will or by any earthly might.
I’m afraid, the pencil stabbed through the page is too much like me, puncturing spirits and letting loose the light and airy joys of their childhood that cannot be gathered back.
While Alex writes, finally slower and calmer in his task, I’m thinking maybe I’m too focused on telling them what NOT to do all the time. Maybe if I just gave them more solid good things to DO, that might work.
But then, the do’s aren’t always easier than the do nots.
Don’t Murder. Okay, not too afraid of my children taking up homicide anytime soon.
Do Unto Others. Considering how this morning’s attempt at UNO turned into a spectacle of Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies, I’m just going to say, this command? Way harder.
Love Your Neighbor isn’t always that much easier than Do Not Steal.
Don’t even get me started on Be Self-Controlled.
But there must be small things we can do or say to foster what we want to see in our children- do good, love, share, be less about yourself – without exasperating, either them or myself.
Alex rolls to his back and stares up at the ceiling, his copying work is half done. Can you make them play again when I’m all done, so I can play a whole game?
Can I make this fair, for him? Can he have his punishment and also his prize?
Alex, I ask, do you think they’ll want to play with you when you’re through?
Without hesitation, he answers, it’s my game.
That’s not what I asked.
He says nothing.
And so I walk the line, again. Is what I’m going to say exasperating to a child who is tired of writing, tired of hearing over and over again the broken record of all of these things?
Is what I’m going to say, because it’s helpful to him, or is it me blowing off steam, or needing to feel like we’ve had a successful heart-to-heart moment that I can reference someday? (You know, when their therapists call me into question about being an involved and loving mother.)
Alex, do you think you’re alone?
He rolls over to his stomach, taps his pencil on his forehead and looks at me, sitting in the same room as him, like I’m losing my grip on reality. Uh, no?
I mean, with these things you’re working on. Do you think I’m singling you out? Do you think you’re alone?
He says nothing.
I’m not. I love you and what you’re writing, that God loves you? It’s true too. And the Bible has these instructions in it, over and over again, because throughout history, every single person struggles. Just like you.
To expect a nine year old, who is starting to come into the stage of questioning the things he has always held as blind faith, to suddenly have the self-control of a grown man, just because I’ve asked him to copy sentences on a page, is impractical.
And it’s exasperating – to me.
Considering others before we consider ourselves, it’s not something we can really grasp, until we know that we are whole, regardless of our circumstances. And even then, even in our best possible moments, we’re still just as flawed as my son, struggling willfully against the task given him.
Except Jesus, Alex says, pulling me back from a long pause.
Yes, Except Jesus.
Thank goodness for that. Thank goodness that for all of our going and doing and being (and staying, and sitting and failing) and for all our successes (and our failures) and for every lesson we learn and apply (and for every lesson we repeat over and over again, stabbing holes through papers as we go) – we are never, ever alone.
And I’m thankful for a heavenly parent who sees this flawed, exhausted, going-doing-being parent, so desperate for her children to get things right, that she gets so many (many) things wrong…and yet, He is does not exasperate.