BY ROSIE WITTLEDER, GRACE ATTENDER
Can I just take a moment and be gut-level honest with you? About my family, my parenting, and some of our struggles behind closed doors?
Last week was a very challenging time for my husband Mark and I when it came to parenting our son. Our 7-year-old Drew is a true delight. He is funny, engaging, expressive, and strong. VERY strong. Drew challenges everything. It’s part of how he is.
Because Drew is just a kid, he needs to be affirmed that--although he is big and strong--his parents are bigger and stronger. As with any kid, Drew wants the security of knowing his parents can handle him, and that he is not too much for us. If Mark or I ever get lax in sticking to our limits, Drew will start pushing hard against any and all boundaries, basically asking the question, “Can I get my own way?” Deep down, Drew wants the answer to be no. He wants to feel secure and get to be a kid, even though he has a will the size of Texas.
Then there are Drew’s parents. That would be Mark and I. We relate to our son in very different ways. Mark is a peacemaker. He attempts to keep the peace at all costs. Conflict feels like death to him. Meanwhile, I am the opposite, in some ways. I overly engage. I’m intense, and I’m usually ready to match Drew’s intensity at any given time. If Drew wants to try to push me around, good luck. When Drew acts like he’s the king of the hill, that feels like death to me.
So you can see the collision coming. And the struggles that Mark and I face both individually and as a couple when it comes to parenting Drew well. At my worst self, I will be big and intense and put Drew in his place with little regard for how I do it. At Mark’s worst self, he will give in and give Drew his way instead of engaging in conflict. At times, it feels so overwhelming for both of us to parent our cherished boy well.
Last week, we were all three operating at our worst selves one evening. Mark was appeasing, I was irate, and Drew was pushing back on everything. We ended the evening in shambles. All three of us.
I woke up the next morning feeling so heavy. I felt anxious, angry, afraid, and overwhelmed. I journaled and asked some questions like... What in the world are we doing? How do we parent this child without royally screwing him up? When will I ever stop my own patterns that contribute to our family’s dysfunctional patterns? When will I get better? When will Mark get better? When will Drew stop being so annoying?
I still felt anxious about how the morning would go. Mark was already gone for work, so it was just the kids and me. I was so afraid Drew would wake up rearing and ready to fight again. I knew there was unfinished business to take care, but I didn’t think we had the time to get things resolved before heading off for school.
I prayed and asked God to help me. To help me be kind and gentle, yet firm. To my surprise, Drew woke up seemingly okay. He did ask about the previous night and wanted clarity about what his consequences would be. By the miraculous grace of God, I was dialed down and calm. At the same time, I was unwavering and firm. And Drew was able to accept what I said. We actually had a calm and peaceful morning. That felt like a miracle considering how lost and overwhelmed I was feeling inside.
On our way to school, I was still feeling this way when I heard Drew and our one-year-old Sadie in the back seat. Drew asked his sister if he could give her a hug. But when he went in for a hug, Sadie gave a mild yell, expressing her displeasure. Drew stopped and said, “That’s okay, Sadie. We don’t have to hug if you don’t want to.”
As I was listening, something struck me about how important their interaction was. I decided to tell Drew that I was really proud of him for listening to his sister. I commended him for listening to Sadie’s reply and respecting her wishes. Then I explained to him what a big deal that was. He asked me why.
I told him that it’s common for people to use their strength in ways that are hurtful. Specifically, it’s common for men to not respect women with their bodies. Again Drew asked why. I told him that typically, not always, men are physically stronger than women. When a woman says no, some men will use their strength to do what they want anyway. And that Drew could have easily forced Sadie to hug him because he is so much bigger and stronger than her, but he didn’t.
Drew then says to me, “Mom, when I grow up, I am going to use my strength for something good. And when I see a boy do something like that to a girl, I’m going to punch him in the face.” Drew said this with such conviction and decisiveness--as if punching someone in the face was the most obvious solution.
Under my sunglasses, tears began to fall. I was honestly so caught off guard and shocked by his declaration of how he intended to use his strength. For good. For the underdog. For those whose voices aren’t being heard.
This moment of clarity happened in my heart and mind. It felt like God was saying this to me:
Rosie, it is going to be okay. Yes, your son is very strong. I made him to be this way. It is a blessing, not a curse. Yes, it is hard. But you and Mark can do this. I have entrusted him with you. You will make mistakes. You will not handle him well at times, but there is grace and it is going to be okay. I gave him this strength, so that one day he will use it for something good, just like he said.
As parents, it's our job to be a student of our kids. To pay attention to those innate qualities that make them unique, and then develop those things. How do we cultivate those traits, without letting them run wild? How do we find the balance between allowing a child to be themselves without squelching the essence of who they are?
I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet and likely will never be able to do it just right. I’m working on it. We can work on it together, in community. In the meantime, know you’re not alone. We can openly share our struggles in a safe environment. Having support and being known is half the battle in making it through these hard situations in life-giving ways.