A Taste of Freedom

Recently, I had to ask my 14-year-old son three times to get himself ready for the day and take out the trash and recycling. By the time he hoisted himself up off the couch, he was seething with irritation that I would interrupt him while he was reading a book. The stomping and growling might rival a disgruntled grizzly.

But he was doing what I asked.

I had a choice in that moment. Demand a better attitude, or let it go and let him finish his job.

I used to make my kids go back and try again, no stomping or growling allowed. It seemed a losing battle. It seemed to just trigger resentment to rear up higher–a grizzly roaring on hind legs would face me down. And I had to either back down or win. I usually chose to win, but at what cost?

I never felt like my approach was quite right, but I didn’t know what else to do.

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point, I realized that my “training” was fruitless for a few reasons.

  1. I stomp and growl and slam doors when I’m overly irritated too. Hypocrite much? Why am I the only one allowed to be irritated, angry, or frustrated when I am interrupted or inconvenienced by responsibility?
  2. I was demanding perfection from them when all I ultimately wanted was for them to take care of a responsibility with minimal fuss. Who cares if they growl, as long as it gets DONE? I realized that I don’t have the energy to fight about everything.
  3. Even Jesus didn’t obey unto death with the “joyful countenance” Christian parenting books would like us to demand of our children.
  4. I was taking their reactions and irritation as a personal affront, rather than an opportunity to teach them that we don’t have to like or enjoy our responsibilities — we just have to meet them.
  5. Last, but not least: I have absolutely no say in how my children feel or act. They are human beings with free will and autonomy, whether I like it or not. And as they grow, they need the opportunity to learn that bad attitudes, ingratitude, and grumbling never offer any benefits and make their responsibilities feel heavier.

I have learned that I have ZERO say in my child’s attitude and actions. That the boundaries in my home are all I can control, not feelings or actions. Understanding this has lead me to believe that I may finally get glimpses of the freedom I desire in parenting.

My kids’ attitude can’t offend me anymore if I don’t give them that control and don’t demand their feelings line up with my standards, which are actually pretty arbitrary. My standards should center around actions and results, illustrating that freedom and responsibility go hand-in-hand, and that choices have consequences.

I have learned to stick to my guns, and let them work out their attitude with God. I’d far rather have grumpy obedience than false joy. When I back off the attitude, and focus on the actions, I see the kids self-correcting sometimes. It’s encouraging.

This story Jesus tells also encourages me:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. 

Which of the two did what his father wanted?

‘The first,’ they answered. 

Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you.'”

~Matthew 21:28-31 (NIV)

Granted, it’s not necessarily a parenting lesson, and I don’t want to take Scripture out of context, but Jesus commends the son who did what his Father asked after arguing with him about it, rather than the one who was respectful in attitude to his face but didn’t meet his responsibility.

That’s what I want for my kids. I want their respect when my back is turned. I want to know that they will act with integrity when I’m not there for them put on an act for. I would rather they argue to my face and get their jobs done than grumble behind my back and rebel.

Back to my 14-year-old. He had forgotten to put a new bag in the trash can, so I called him back in. I could hear him slam his book down, and begin stomping and grumbling. But before he reached my sight, I heard him slow down and call out politely “Yes, Mom?” as he made his way into the kitchen.

He self-corrected. *Insert Hallelujah Chorus Here*

I commended him for it. I told him that it was a sign of maturity that he consciously chose to respond respectfully to me, even though he was still irritated that I interrupted him. He responded to me a bit sarcastically, but I let the compliment stand.

Because it’s the truth. It took maturity and self-control to breathe and slow down when he normally doesn’t, and blusters about like a storm, uncaring of hurt inflicted.

I don’t know how much credit I can take for that. Probably not much.

But the freedom is nice.

Disclaimer: This is just my personal take on an issue we all deal with. I am not commenting on other parents and children, only my own household. I have just noticed a clear correlation between my letting go of control over their feelings and attitudes and their maturity blossoming in small ways. This is about my children and me. No one else.

Another note: Of course, disrespect isn’t tolerated. And it depends on the situation how I handle it. Are they being blatantly disrespectful? Not most of the time. Most of the time, they’re just annoyed at being asked to do something when they’re in the middle of something they like doing. I remember this feeling from my own childhood well. I’ll often say something like, “I am going to assume that you’re not being deliberately disrespectful here. Thank you for taking care of this for me. Love you.” And I walk away. They can’t argue about it if I don’t participate. So far, it seems to help. As the adult, I can’t expose any buttons for them to push, though that’s almost impossible.

What have you learned about parenting that you wish you had known sooner?

Grace & Peace,