You know the situation. Something has just happened to your child – whether major or minor – and all warning signs say it’s time to sound the airstrike siren and seek shelter.
The area’s about to be turned into a warzone. You quickly interject, sending the offering parties (or individual – because when it comes to kids, it really only takes one to tango) to their respective corners and try to get your emotions under control. Now, all you need to do is find the perfect few phrases to turn your seething and belligerent mess of child-emotions into an apologetic and submissive angel.
When my daughter Eden was three, I started a using a pattern of phrases when I would first sit down to talk to her – even if she hadn’t yet cooled down (read: she’s still red in the face from screaming). I’ve found them to be incredibly helpful. They go something like this:
“Eden, who am I?”
*Sniffle, sniffle, snort. Pause. Sigh.* “Daddy.”
“Right, Eden. I’m daddy. And how do I feel about you?”
*Sniffle. Loud pflem sound. Grimace* “You love me.”
“Yeah, I love you. So what does that mean?”
*Eye shrug (you know what I mean)* “You’re in charge.”
“Right, I’m in charge. And because I’m in charge, and because you’re not acting right, and because I love you so much, we’ve got to figure out how to help you act right.”
There’s three questions I ask every time I kneel down to look her in the eye: ‘Who am I?’ ‘How do I feel about you?’ And ‘What does that mean?’ Over the past two years, I’ve found this is an incredible way to establish my authority, calm her down, and move forward.
It Establishes Authority
At the heart of disobedience is always a confusion of relationship. This is not revolutionary – it tracks back to Genesis 3 and the Garden of Eden. “God is keeping good from you!” Satan lies. “He doesn’t want you to have something you deserve.” If at that moment Eve had looked at Satan and said, “My Father would never do that,” well – we wouldn’t need to be having this discussion of childhood disobedience.
When a child disobeys, it’s because they’ve decided they know what’s best and that they won’t submit to parental authority. But when the parent raises his or her voice, shouting (or saying loudly), “I’m in charge! You need to listen!” the child’s natural tendency is either to cower or entrench – the flight or fight mechanism is triggered. Neither response moves the situation towards healthy resolution, and neither helps establish authority.
On the other hand, when you ask a canned, regular question about relationships, you challenge the child to remember – and accept – your natural authority. You’re not doing so accusingly or aggressively – rather, you’re simply saying, “Who am I? Remember, that title from God gives me authority.” A child can understand and accept this at a young age – but only if they’re thinking about it and calm. And this leads to the second point:
It Helps Defuse the Situation
Oftentimes, one of the biggest impediments to dealing with frustration and disobedience is that by the time I’m getting involved, it’s all snot and tears and lots and lots of emotion. A child can’t think – much less think clearly – about a situation at this point. You need something to calm the child down and move past the emotion to the truth.
Time can certainly be that something – and it often needs to be. But asking regular questions to which the child knows the answers can help calm those nerves and get him or her thinking again. This in turn helps move the whole process forward.
It Centers on Love
Eden knows in her heart that I love her. She knows the without reservation or doubt. But by golly, when I’ve asked her to eat that second floweret of broccoli that she’s already said she doesn’t want – well, that doesn’t sound like love to her five-year-old mind. That sounds a lot more like a declaration of war.
Our children must be taught to view our discipline through the lens of love. I believe there are few more important lessons. This is essential for our parenting success but also, far more importantly, for their discipleship. God disciplines those he loves. God is going to discipline our children – because he loves them far more than we ever will.
We must do everything within our power to teach our kids to expect God’s discipline and correction – not as a exception to His love, but as an extension of it. This starts by couching and explaining our discipline with the language of love.
Over the past two years, this process has been one of the most effective in pulling my daughter out of her anger, out of her frustration and emotion and helping her think calmly about her actions and mine. However, I don’t think this process will stay as effective, even over this next year. She’s going to get more cynical about canned responses, and she’ll learn more easily how to game the system – how to remain obstinate and defiant even in face of her answers.
But I don’t think I’ll change, at least for a while. Even if this process fails to calm her down, I want to make sure I’m reminding her of my love and authority whenever we interact over a blowout.
After all, I’m daddy.
P.S. Eden and I have had conversations away from crises about the fact that I’m in charge – the third answer – because I’m daddy, not because I love her. My love will never change, I’ve explained, but that’s not why I’m in charge. Even if she feels I don’t love her, I’m still in charge. I guess we could switch the whole second and third questions, but I’ve also felt getting to “you love me” as quickly as possible has been pretty important.