Several years ago I looked out the window to see an eighteen month old child in only a diaper walking down the street drinking a coke. Then I realized it was my child. I wasn't sure where he had found a coke, but this was the least of my worries. Twice this child had been delivered at my door by strangers who guessed he came from our house. Once the police had been called and had to take a statement, which ended with the police saying Nathanael needed a bath. For weeks I defended myself to the police...in my mental dialogues. No matter how we locked our doors, the garage, the gate, this little Houdini could find his way out.
Twice when I was trying to leave the first service at church, he had run into the second service all the way down to the front where he waved his bag of snacks, laughing, challenging anyone to catch him, smiling at his dad who was trying to lead the service.
A bath, now, was out of the question, as that would have set off more neighbors calling the police for all the screaming and yelling, wailing phrases like, "Why are you doing this to me?" We started every bath by closing all the windows.
The difficulty with this child was that when he wasn't escaping he was clinging. It was the strangest of combinations. He would have to be touching me at all times, his preferred place to put his hand being in my armpit. The only way I could make a meal was to sit him on the counter where he could keep his arms around my neck while I stirred from side to side. When I had to work at the stove, I would send an older sibling out pushing him in a stroller around the block several times...often with him crying the whole time. When I took a shower he would cry outside the door for the full duration. When I got up during the night to use the bathroom, he would follow me and have to stand by me the whole time. This went on for four years, yes, four years. I was truly desperate. As an introvert, I was about to crack with the lack of physical and emotional space. Behind his back we secretly called him, "the Triplets."
As I prayed about him, begging God to change him, move him to a different stage, or something, God spoke to me the same thing over and over, "Receive him. For him to be the adult that he must be for my kingdom, this is the kind of child he must be."
The understanding the Lord extended to me and the vision for what Nathanael would someday be as an adult, carried me during those days. I realized that his life would be one of high risk, stepping out and going far afield into places God would call him, but this would all be balanced with a high degree of connection, of knowing his rootedness at home. Undeveloped, these qualities are difficult in a child, but shaped and directed, these qualities make for a great combination of independence and interdependence.
The Lord has shown me this in all of my children. The nascent stages of many virtues, in a child, are raw, unformed, and challenging. Perseverance in a child is frustrating, especially when he won't give up begging for that snack he must have. Empathy in a child requires extra parental caution so that she doesn't see anything that will upset her equilibrium. Artistic gifts in a child often mean an unfiltered imagination plagued by disturbing pictures or ideas. A high sense of justice in a child means he will monitor everyone, including his parents. A leadership gift in a child means she will assume she always knows what is best. These potential virtues will drive us insane if we cannot see them as exactly that, potential virtues.
It is important, of course, to be clear that children have sinful hearts. They will be rebellious, disobedient, and mean, simply because they are sinners. But as we discipline these children, we must be in dialogue with the Lord to know what clearly just needs to be "put to death" and repented of, and what we can call forward in the true self.
Seeing the truest self in a child involves disciplining what is not the truest self. As I discipline a child, I sometimes use the terms of Scripture, "This is your old self that you don't want to live out of." Disobedience, selfishness and disrespect must be nipped in the bud, along with any dishonoring of others. While disciplining, we are casting a vision for submission, love, and selflessness as the truest and new self they are to live out of.
We named our Becket after Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who refused to let the state dictate to the Church and was martyred for standing on his convictions. As our world moves into greater conflict with the Church, we wanted our child to be strong and not capitulate. Also the name Becket means, "one planted by the river," and when I was pregnant, our family was always singing the song, "Just like a tree planted by the waters, I shall not be moved."
In my worst moments, I wonder what we were doing to ourselves. Becket is the childish embodiment of "I shall not be moved." I don't know if I have seen a stronger willed child.
While Becket HAS to be disciplined for saying to us, "I will not listen to you," I at the same time am praying that he will say just that to the temptations of this world. He has to learn submission to God and to authorities God has put in his life to be able to stand and say, "I will obey God rather than man."
And so, with each of my children I ask God to help me see the truest self underneath the behavior in order to call forward that which must be shaped and matured. At the same time, I try to cast a vision for my other children to do the same for siblings. So when Ellison was so difficult as a child, I used to act out scenes for my children of what it would be like when they were in college. I would have a pretend phone ring, I would answer it and stage a dialogue between Madeleine and Ellison that showed a deep connection of love, fun, and trust. They would laugh, but I think they caught the vision that someday if they gave each other grace, they would be mature and close.
We have to do this now with our older kids when they are putting up with Becket. They would refer to him as "the monster." We put an instant stop to that. We said if you want to call him a "strong boy who needs to learn how to control his strength," feel free. I think we have allowed "Rajah," and "Norwegian Princeling," only because we all need to have some outlet of humor for what we deal with from day to day. And we all share in the struggle together, praying for him, enjoying him, and even laughing secretly at his attempts to rule the world. The olders now have perspective, too, because they have seen Nathanael slowly, and I mean slowly, emerge as a delightful, hilarious, athletic, engaging brother who adds so much to our family.
When the Angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, Gideon was hiding from the Midianites. The Angel addressed him, "The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor." God called forward in Gideon what he could see and what Gideon could not even see in himself, before he was anything resembling valiant. How we label our children is extremely important. We need to make sure that all labels call them outward and upward to something greater. If you call a child shy, he will be. If you call a child anxious, she will be. If you call a child naughty, stupid, selfish or mean, he will be. This does not mean that you don't say, "You are being mean right now. I don't think that is the kind of person you want to be."
And if you call a child thoughtful, kind, intelligent, a hard worker, he or she will become all of these things over time. Of course, you say what is real, but be aware that you have an immense power as a parent to shape what "real" will be. One of my greatest joys now is to see siblings blessing one another by saying, "You are really good at that." Or they might tell someone else, "My brother is amazing in this way," or "My sister is so good at..."
Years ago I remember a sociology professor in college sharing that when he was in elementary school his parents were called in to the administrative office where the school shared that this boy had scored in the genius category for math but was not showing it in his math performance. So for all his school years he knew he was a math genius. When he graduated from high school, his files showed that there had been a mistake. His scores had been confused with another student's, and he had so long ago only tested average in math. But it didn't matter. He had since become a math genius. So much more could be said about the biblical testimony of our becoming what we believe we are.
May God give us his eyes to see our children for what they can and will be, even in the midst of behaviors that belie their truest selves, and may we walk in faith, calling forward in them the man or woman they are created to be.