Seeing My Children as My Neighbors
A few months after having my second child, I had the biggest blow-up with my firstborn to date. We had somewhere to be, he wouldn’t pick up his Legos, and his refusal of my reasonable ask to tidy up sent me into a spiral of unreasonable, unkind disobedience toward him.
I held his shoulders and raised my voice yelling, “Pick up your Legos!”
I felt his shoulders slump beneath my hands as he cried, “I don’t like it when you yell at me.”
We both ended up in tears on the kitchen floor; it was awful. Fortunately, a friend reminded me of God’s grace in my failings. I apologized to him, and he apologized to me, and we were able to overcome the incident. But it drove me to ponder what led to this moment. What was I missing in my theology and how I viewed my son that I thought I could act and speak that way to him? I would be mortified to ever act that away around someone outside of my family.
In Matthew 22, Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was. He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I discovered that I was not viewing my son as being created in the image of God, and I certainly did not view him as my neighbor.
Not only are my children my neighbors, but they are some of the closest I will ever have. When else does your neighbor move into your spare bedroom? I am convinced the best way we can love our children as our neighbor is by being gracious in our speech and using language that is developmentally-appropriate.
Gracious in Speech
Paul David Tripp in his book Parenting says, “Very little of our parenting takes place in grand significant moments that have stopped us in our tracks and commanded our full attention; parenting takes place on the fly when we’re not really paying attention and are greeted with things that we did not know we were going to be dealing with that day. It’s the repeated cycle of little unplanned moments that is the soul-shaping workroom of parenting.”
Those “unplanned moments” have equated to “thorn in the flesh” for me at times. As a highly efficient, motivated person (read: enneagram 3), having children was quite the adjustment. Believe it or not, toddlers don’t seem to care if I just cleaned my house. Babies aren’t mindful of my early morning meeting. I have found myself overwhelmed, usually underfed and restless, and quick to use harsh tones. Yet, my children are undoubtedly God’s will for me and they are also my neighbors. The same is true for you.
The first way to love our children as our neighbors is simply to be gracious in our speech. Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech be gracious, seasoned with salt.” This sounds like it would be simple, but when you have asked them to pick up their dirty clothes for the fifth time, it’s not so simple. Before raising your voice to demand an outcome, remember how many times you yourself may have been asked to be obedient before you complied. Romans 5:8 says, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were still dead in our trespasses, Christ came and lived the perfect life and willingly died on the cross for our salvation. 1 Peter 2:23 says, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”
Jesus entrusted himself to God who judges justly, and through his grace and the work of the Spirit, we can do the same. When our children disobey or hurl ugly words and behaviors our way, we can entrust ourselves (and our children!) to God. We can show this trust by taming our tongues and controlling our tone in hopes of our children seeing the gospel through our behavior. We can rest in the arms of our Savior and choose to use gracious, kind words because we know God will be faithful to the end.
Developmentally Appropriate Language
Second, we can love our children well by speaking in a developmentally-appropriate way. Our attention spans may be limited, but our kids’ attention spans are even shorter than we think! According to childhood development experts, an average attention span to expect of a child is two to three minutes per year of their age. When we lecture, we are actually working against our children’s biological makeup and their capabilities. That means the 20-slide presentation you have put together for your teenage daughter may be overkill. And a 15-minute chat on gentleness may not meet my four-year-old very well in a timeout after pushing his sister down.
Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” We need to limit our words to only what is encouraging and beneficial to our children; that means sarcasm must cease to exist in our households. Younger children are not even capable of understanding the meaning of sarcasm, and most older children see it as mean.
Let me be clear that I am the chief offender when it comes to sarcasm. For many years, sarcasm was held in my adult circle as a sign of intelligence and wittiness – all things I desire to excel in! However, when I run it through the rubric of Ephesians 4 and Colossians 4, it cannot stand. Is it gracious? No. Is it helpful in building others up? Not usually. Does it benefit those who listen? Definitely not.
Not too long ago, my now-older firstborn was having a tough, whiny morning. What began as dissatisfaction over his outfit, brand new might I add, warped into a puddle of emotion and him screaming, “Take it off. I don’t like these!” My husband began to step in by trying to slow his breathing and calm his body. Because of my son’s disrespect toward me, he was told to apologize. My son refused, and this began the cycle of refusal, consequences, trying again, followed by more refusal, consequences, and trying again. This song and dance played on for four more rotations until finally, getting down to my son’s level, my husband, obviously frustrated by now, spoke kindly and softly, “Buddy, how would you feel if you got mama something and she cried and screamed like you did?” The lightbulb clicks on. “Sad,” my son responds. “Do you think you want to tell her you’re sorry now?” my husband says. My son looks at me through tears and says he is sorry. I eagerly accepted. In this highly tense, frustrating situation, my husband had chosen the grace-filled route by loving his neighbor, our son, as himself.