Socks hurl across the kitchen, a hail of chaos splintering morning routine and order. Thunked in the back of head, I spin from sink and into the face of a grinning twelve-year-old. I am set to return with volley of words about maturity and setting an example and simply folding laundry instead of rocking the boat. His younger brothers are already whipping back knitted wools with mismatched sweatsocks. And then one of the statutes of the Geneva Convention of Motherhood flashes across my interior screen: Ignore negative attention-seeking behavior so as not affirm it. I can still remember the assured voice of the retired schoolteacher who insisted that was the only way to raise children. Eyes on stacked plates, I quietly direct younger boys to return to the organizing of the cutlery drawer, gently ask older boy to finish folding towels. The commotion slowly calms and I am left to wondering.
Is it true? Ignore attention-seekers? Don’t give them what they seek: attention. I shine the kitchen sink, mulling. Attention-seekers are hungry. They are empty, needy. They seek that which they need: attention. We feed hungry children. We clothe cold children. Do we not give attention to attention-seeking children? True, no negative, lecturing attention. But, surely, more good, loving, affirming attention. I mentally revise that mothering statute: Attention-getting antics are red flags to do just that: give more attention. That the relationship needs more attention, more time, more intimacy, more affirmation.
I carry in another load of wet laundry and call for that boy-man. A laundry rack needs assembling. I carefully read instructions, noting parts and pieces; he dives into connecting, screwing, aligning. I applaud. He screws on a wheel, never looking up, but a smile leaks. I hand him a section, ask what he needs next. We laugh when we get one rack backwards. The roots of relationship grow deeper. And I think: are behavioral problems symptoms of relationship problems? If behavior breaks out in an attention-grabbing rash, doesn’t the relationship require immediate heart attention?
Not ignoring. Not time-outs. Not banishment. How does Father God parent? He whispers, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Though I was “a brute beast before [Him]…[He] hold[s] me by my right hand” (Ps. 73:22-23). He meets my raging antics with what I need: more of Himself. Relationship. When we have behavioral problems, it is indeed a relationship problem: we don’t have one with Him.
“Parenting is not a skill to perform. But a relationship to cultivate,” writes Dr. Gordon Neufeld, author of Hold On To Your Kids. Mirroring our spiritual development, parenting growth results not from techniques or procedures, but from rich and real relationship.
A close friend writes me of recent day of mothering. “Katharina, when tired, quickly becomes sour and sullen… which moves quickly to nasty. I rebuked her and gave the space and option to change her attitude. In her “space” she decided to lay it on more. I gave her some warm, unrelated attention and let her lie on the couch under a blanket with a book, but the snuggle on the couch didn’t change her heart at all. She just kept working her way in deeper.
“I called her to me, (and of course, she refused at first… and then came, all the while telling me how I was wrecking her day.) She wouldn’t let me touch her nor look me in the eye. I pulled her stiff body towards me. And then I said just what you said to your child the other day. She didn’t budge. At first. I said it again… She almost immediately crawled into my lap, melted into me, and stayed there several minutes. Before she left, she gave me several kisses and for the rest of the day… the whole rest of the day… hardly left my side.”
What had I said that day to my child, the words my friend spoke too? Words that didn’t originate with me. I only repeated the words God Himself spoke first. To this nasty, impenetrable, attention-seeking heart.
I had been putting away the last of the laundry. Cookies cooled on the countertop rack, the wafting sweet luring boy-man to hunt down the source. Walking through with a stack of towels in arm, I shook a no towards prowling boy-man. “Cookies are for bedtime reading. Please don’t touch yet.” Moments later, out of the corner of my eye, a glimpse of the swipe, the dashing away. I call boy-man’s name. His face says it all: guilty, red, ashamed. A rebuke surges, punishment riding its crest. But the Spirit comes quickly.
And brings words of relationship, relationship that I only know because He first loved me. My lips move, but the words are His: “Child, I love you unconditionally and nothing you do will change that. Always, no matter what, I love you deeply. I am very sorry for what you did here.” I inhale, exhale. “But I love you all the same.” I pause and take a deep breath. His eyes are watery blue. “May I grant you mercy, just as Jesus grants me mercy?” His eyes drift away. And I slip to the mudroom, seeking quiet dark to lick these mothering wounds and all the disappointment.
But he comes too. With words of his own, words I don’t expect. “Mom? I am sorry I hurt you. I did the wrong thing. I shouldn’t have done that…. Is there anything I can do to make that right? Can I help you with something?”
Mercy did that, performed a heart change that punishment is impotent to accomplish. It did it to my own heart: transformed relationship. I wanted attention. I wanted self-gratification. I sinned. God gave me not penalty, but Himself. He bathed in me mercy, healing deep wounds. He wrapped me up in relationship. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:12). Love does what law cannot.
And yet He knows there is no formula, or pat, easy answers. We reject Him, sin against Him, betray Him. But He, Love, pursues relentlessly. In the face of heartache. Our behavior drives Him deeper into relationship. He knows full well that the relationship problem is not a result of His failure to love, but the stoniness of His children’s hearts. It is not an issue of how much Father loves His children, but how much, if at all, His children love their Father. Undaunted, He gives His immediate love attention to the rash of our sin. In hopes that His love will stir our hearts.
I look into the face of boy-man. “Yes, son, there is something you can do.” He waits and I wade into those eyes. It feels rich and right. “Tomorrow, could we match the socks together, you and I?”
©2008, Ann Voskamp
Hold on to Your Kids, Gordon Neufeld