Yesterday on my way out of church I stopped to talk with an acquaintance. Just a quick “Hello, how’s your summer going?” kind of thing. She’s middle-aged and single, so we don’t have a whole lot in common but we share a love for God and for our particular congregation and I like to touch base from time to time.
“Oh,” she said,” I wanted to tell you that a friend came to church with me the other week and commented on how well-behaved your children are and how much she enjoyed seeing them sitting in church and participating. You don’t see that much any more.”
“No,” I replied,” somehow having children in the service has been lost in the Episcopal church.”
“How do you get them to sit still and listen? That’s so hard for little children.”
“We practice at home, nearly every day.”
She seemed kind of surprised, but when I explained that sitting still for five minutes was a good introduction to self-control agreed, that it made sense. Her reaction got me thinking though: how many of the things that we do, do we do because we’ve thought it through and how many of the things we do are reactions to the actions of our children in the last thirty seconds?
How often do we fuss about something that we can see clearly but which is a bit of a mystery to our children?
When I was a schoolteacher I was told by an older teacher to post an example of a neat paper in my room. She pointed out that “work neatly” is not clear to children without giving them a clear example of what “neatly” means and that it is unfair to hold them to a standard without being sure that they understand and can be reasonably expected to meet it. I found that advice very useful and often find myself applying it to home life. Lately I’ve been seeing that when we are repeatedly dealing with a discipline issue one of the first things I need to do is to give as objective a definition of the standard as possible. I then need to spend some time training with the standard in mind, before I can start holding the children accountable.
For instance: F was having a great deal of difficulty obeying promptly. We decided that “obey promptly” meant starting to obey within ten seconds. The next week we had him practice starting within ten seconds by asking him to do something (or stop doing something) and then slowly counting to ten. Once he had a good sense of what the time frame was that we were talking about, we started to hold him accountable. He has really improved in his obedience but also everyone involved was less frustrated because we all knew what was meant by “prompt obedience.”
Of course the difficulty here is that training in this way requires a great deal of forethought. It is so much easier just to react, to fuss and discipline, than to think through what I am ultimately trying to accomplish. The time for training is so short that I really do need to keep in mind that they will be grown in just a few years and that I will not be the one holding them accountable anymore. If I want them to desire accountability as adults then I must make the accountability I give them now, both loving and just. I can only do that by thinking through what I am asking of them before I ask it and parenting intentionally.