Obviously we've had a big week as a family: a lot of emotion and a handful of positive steps. Saturday's spontaneous Date Night with my eldest son signified a huge breakthrough for us and while things are not perfect, I really have seen a small but significant change for the better in both our relationship AND his relationship with his little brother.
All of this has given me a lot of pause for thought about the importance of unconditional love, and accepting a person for who they are.
I think for the past six years I have come at parenting from the perspective that it is up to me to guide and help mold my children into loving, responsible, respectful little people. I've given them the firm but kind discipline and tried to explain an infinite number of social conventions to them - like why we *do* hug people when they are sad, but *don't* pull down our pants in public.
In all of this time though, it never did occur to me to just accept the negative behaviors in my children. I mean, *can you* as a responsible parent just accept acts of violence? Theft? Lies?
Can you? Should you?
This is so tricky because the intuitive answer in my gut is a booming NO!!!! but then I wonder if perhaps I am wrong. Is the key to raising good human beings just to love them unconditionally, even when they evidence a terrible behavior? Is it to accept that some children are more rough than others, and some will be more kind than others, and some will be more manipulative than others?
Is it time to accept that I don't control my own children, and they may well grow up to become adults who make decisions that I don't agree with and wouldn't approve of?
Is it time to give them the freedom to find out on their own how others will respond to their less positive behaviors?
I mean, isn't that the way we learn in real life? Once we are adults? Should I just accept my kids for who they are, and then allow life to teach them in its own school of hard knocks that poor behaviors have natural consequences?
In real life, I don't try to change my friends or their actions. If a person shows insulting or violent behavior toward me or my family, I simply stop spending time with them. I choose to share my time with people who are compassionate and warm-hearted. People that have integrity.
Is 'violence doesn't pay' one of those lessons that my children are just going to have to learn the hard way?
In "real life" outside of our family, if my son ever punched another person's kid in the face, there would be major repercussions at school, with the other child's family, and among all of his friendships with the other children. He would learn pretty darn fast that nobody likes a bully. Peer pressure alone would provide a very powerful incentive to control his anger.
Is it my job to teach him this lesson? I've always thought so.
But is it? Can he actually learn that lesson from me?
Or does he need to learn it the hard way, like the rest of us did?
Do we actually learn things from our parents? Or, do we learn by watching their example?
When I really think about the example I've been setting for the past six years, what kind of message have I been sending my son through my actions and words? Have my actions said,
"I will love you no matter what, no matter what boundary you run up against,"
or, have they said something more akin to,
"My love for you is conditional - I will lavish you with love and attention if you are gentle and well behaved but when you act impulsively or violently, I will demonstrate frustration and emotional distance."
Has my love for him then been used as a carrot? An incentive for good behavior?
And if indeed I *have* been using love like that, is it any wonder that my son doesn't always try to win my love? That he doesn't always make the right choice in an attempt to win the carrot dangling in front of him on the stick?
In a way, I totally respect him for refusing to act like my dancing monkey. I'm glad that he has the strength of personality not to change or shape himself merely to win someone else's approval. I don't want him to grow up to become a pleaser, willing to change himself to meet the expectations of others.
I also think it's likely that perhaps he acts out on purpose, just to see if I will still love him even when he doesn't meet my expectations. Time and time again, I've grown so mad at him for hitting. The message this consistent anger or disappointment probably sends is that my love is artificial... untrustworthy. It tells him that I am a fair-weather friend.
So how does one do it then?
- How does one parent their children using only unconditional love?
- How does one manage to feel and convey a profound love right for their child at a moment when he or she has attacked another one of their children, right in plain view?
- How does a parent manage to protect and assure the 'victim' child, while still extending pure love and acceptance to the 'bully'?
When my eldest son was two years old and his brother was a baby, the elder brother often tried to hit and bite the baby.
"If he wants to hit, let him hit something - just not the baby," counseled his preschool teacher when we came to her in despair. "If he wants to bite, let him bite something - just not the baby."
We followed her advice... bought him a bounce up inflatable punching bag to hit... gave him a sterile cloth soaked in ice water to bite.
Four years later, these behaviors are still present ~ despite the best of our efforts. Yet, I can't help but think that maybe his preschool teacher was onto something important.
She didn't teach us how to extinguish his behavior. She simply gave us an alternate outlet for the inappropriate actions, and encouraged us to both protect the baby brother and continue loving our more aggressive son.
Isn't that a healthier and more realistic strategy than the one I've been parenting with all of this time?
My son loves to hit... isn't it time for me to simply embrace that fact? There are many positive outlets for hitting... T-ball and drumming kits to name just the first two to pop into my head. Maybe instead of fighting against the things that make him unique, it's high time I just accepted them and tried to find a way to make his proclivities work for the rest of the family.
I don't have a great, inspiring, WOW! ending to this post. Clearly I don't have many answers to all of the questions I've raised. I do think I am finally asking the right questions though.
In the end, maybe the best way for me to teach my son how to act with love is to work harder on myself and model my own improved behaviors. Show him how I am able to keep my temper under control. How I can refrain from getting frustrated with him when he makes bad choices. Show him what tolerance and grace under pressure look like. Show him the way I give love, even when others give me pain or sorrow.
All this time, I've been trying to raise *him* - but maybe in the end, it's me that needs to learn the hard lessons; me that needs to live in better harmony with my own beliefs about fairness, justice, turning the other cheek and unconditional love.