A friend of mine came to visit last week with her small army of young children. We chatted while I slathered peanut butter and jelly on slices of wheat bread and threw them at the masses. Every five minutes, we filled requests for cups of water and changed diapers and broke up scuffles over broken toys. In between the commotion she asked,
“How do you discipline your kids?”
I paused because her question, while excellent, was a rather weighty one that I wasn’t sure I was prepared to answer.
I am not a parenting expert.
I always joke that God gave me all these kids because he knows how stupid I am. Some people learn important parenting lessons after one or two children, but God knew it would take me six to get even the basics down!
On top of being a slower learner, I also tend to be a reactor, which is a nice way of saying I’m a hot head. I have a temper and I sometimes yell.
And my kids?
While they are the most awesome people I know, they have their own set of idiosyncrasies that when paired with my weaknesses often lead to explosive results.
So, yeah, my strategy for discipline….it’s helter skelter.
I fumbled around for a few minutes and tossed out a few ideas about how I deal with toddlers. None of the insights I shared were at all helpful and the more I talked, the more idiotic I sounded. Twelve years into this parenting gig and the only “tip” I had to offer is what I do when my eighteen-month-old walks up and down my couch.
Take notes, people. Take notes.
The tide of the conversation turned, though, when my friend confessed to me the guilt she experienced for the times she responded poorly to her children.
As she spoke, I saw my much younger self in her struggles:
I remembered feeling that earth shattering love for all my little people, a love overshadowed only by my inability to parent them perfectly.
I remembered my desire to raise my children in the Catholic faith and care for them as best I could, but feeling a chronic frustration with my selfish, impatient, and reactive tendencies.
I remembered the joy I experienced from being surrounded by my favorite posse of people, but also the crushing weight of responsibility I faced in raising them.
I could identify with her feelings of failure and with her worry she was warping her kids for all of eternity and that’s when it dawned on me.
I do have a discipline strategy, a method to help me when I want to be a better parent but am limited by my sin and humanity:
I attend regular Confession.
After six children and twelve years, the only strategy I’ve implemented that has effectively made me more patient and a more loving disciplinarian is confessing to a priest—in persona Christi—exactly how impatient and unloving I really am.
The only thing that has helped me to respond instead of react to my children is to get on my knees and, in between sobs, relay to a priest that I sometimes behave worse than the toddler with whom I’m dealing.
The only thing that has helped me get a handle on my temper is to say—over and over—“Bless me Father, for I have sinned again and again and again!”
It is the frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance that has supplied me with the one thing that a parenting book or advice or counseling hasn’t:
- It’s given me the ability to accept my sinful ways and trust God’s love for me in spite of my weakness,
- It’s given me the peace to parent these kids, even though I am so very broken,
- And it’s given me the courage to “go and sin no more.”
The week before Good Friday this past spring, my six children and I waited over two hours for an open confessional.
Standing in that line was hard.
By the end, the toddler was bolting down the aisle to get away from me and the four-year-old and six-year-old were quite loudly and quite openly declaring their boredom. All the kids were starting to lose it and frankly, I was too.
But I stayed in line; I wouldn’t have left for a million dollars because I knew the importance of my silent witness. Without using any words, I was saying to my kids…
“Children, you’re mother makes many mistakes. She is broken and imperfect. She sins many times over, but she knows where to go to ask for forgiveness and she will crawl there to get it, if she must. She will wait for hours to see a priest, if that’s what it takes to receive Christ’s forgiveness.
“Children, your mother doesn’t know everything, but she does know God loves her and she knows He’s waiting to offer her mercy. Your mother, children, knows where she can go for healing.
“And now because you’ve seen her go, you too will know where to find healing and mercy for all of your mistakes.”
That’s a discipline strategy worth implementing, I think.
Author’s note: Over the years, my husband and I have sought counseling for both parenting and personal struggles. The relational benefits our family received from outside help are priceless. If you are struggling with overcoming repeated behavioral patterns, please do not feel it is weak to seek help. We cannot pray all of our behavioral problems away unless we address underlying issues and how we adopted certain behaviors in the first place. Sometimes examining these issues requires support from a trained person. There are many qualified, Catholic counselors available to guide you into healing. Visit www.catholictherapists.com to learn more.