Beautiful and Terrible

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A b-day 010Last week, Alex asked for a diary with a lock. “Not a girly one,” he specified.

“Why on earth do you need a diary with a lock?” I asked.

“To write things I don’t want you to see.” Duh.

“Like…like what kinds of things?” I wanted categories, you know, not details.

But he gave me The Look. “Things I don’t want you to see.”

I can’t tell you how much this exchange disturbed my peace of mind. On the one hand, it is inevitable–it is right and proper, even–for him to grow into his own individuality, a process that mandates a certain withdrawal from the intimacy of a parent and child in early childhood. And yet I have visions of all manner of dangerous things being withheld from my knowledge, preventing me from correcting misunderstanding or rescuing from danger. I reminded myself that Alex is pretty good about coming to us with questions and concerns, and I probably don’t need to freak out about it. But I searched Amazon for a non-girly diary with a sense of wistfulness.

It’s a beautiful and terrible thing to watch a child growing up. As he becomes increasingly autonomous, my ability to influence the development of his thoughts and attitudes wanes, and my living example becomes more and more critical. Which is a scary thought. Alex spent the first week of summer vacation losing his temper spectacularly at his siblings, Nicholas in particular. Nicholas is a button-pusher, and Alex is very protective of his belongings, even the ones that seem unimportant. Like a mylar balloon that’s been tied to the back of his chair since his birthday in April. Nicholas was batting it around, and Alex was screaming at him with rage. Now, Nicholas wasn’t doing anything wrong. Alex was completely overreacting. On the other hand, it is his balloon, and Nicholas wasn’t stopping because he likes pushing buttons. Whose side do you take in this situation?

But as I began thinking things through, I realized I do the same thing. Nicholas pushes my buttons, I overreact spectacularly. In fact, I was smack in the middle of a week in which I was feeling overwhelmed by the volume of what had to get done, and I, too, was flipping out at minor, but constant, infractions. I detour to clean up one mess, and thirty seconds later there’s another one. Michael Mayhem + Nicholas button-pusher + Julianna “how much does she understand?” + Alex surely-he’s-too-young-to-be-a-tween…writing it all down clarifies why it frequently overwhelms; that’s quite a combination of child stages and personalities, isn’t it?

But it doesn’t really matter what they throw at me. I’m still teaching them, by my example, about Christian life…accurately or not. I can teach them virtue, or I can teach them hypocrisy: platitudes that can’t stand up to the stresses of real life. My reaction to buttons pushed and messes made is my choice. I just frequently make a poor one.

Scarier yet is the realization that they’re going to remember things about me that I don’t remember doing or saying. There’s an “adult novelty” store that I pass by sometimes, and every time I do, I remember my mother idly wondering if a place like that might “accidentally” have what she needed to complete a farm task for which she hadn’t been able to problem solve a tool. Now, she wasn’t going to go in that store. It was just an offhand comment; I doubt she even remembers it. But I remember it frequently. Which makes me wonder: What am I saying that is making a lasting impression on my kids?

With all this in mind, I called Alex over. I told him frankly that he was not behaving well and neither was I, and we both needed to cool it. And go to confession, which we haven’t done since before Easter. In the last few days, I’ve been quite a bit better…Alex, not quite so much so.

The relationship between a parent and child, I’m realizing in deeper and deeper ways, is a beautiful and terrifying thing.

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17 thoughts on “Beautiful and Terrible

  1. Stephanie Butz

    I tell my children I love them EVERY DAY. We say prayers together EVERY DAY. We have had wonderful days together filled with love and joy and lots of laughter and happiness! We do fun crafts and go swimming, we play games and have play dates with friends. We have campfires and make smores and roast hot dogs and camp in the back yard. We do lots of smiling and we are generally a happy bunch. So why is it that the one time I said a REALLY REALLY BAD WORD (yes you know the word) in front of them, one time in 15 years of parenting I said this word in front of them and I hated myself for it. Why with all of these happy memories and great times that I have tried to create for them, why is it that at least once a week, one of my children remind, “Mum, remember that time you got really mad and said that word?”

      • Stephanie Butz

        ok thank you for that. Sometimes I think that that memory is permanently plastered in their brains and they will be telling it to their therapists someday!

  2. Oh, this post resonates with me SO much. My reactions to the petty, ridiculous things the kids fight over (I have TWO button-pushers) are so often not what I want them to be. It takes a real gut-check, a deep breath, and a do-over to respond in the way that I want them to model/learn. Most times I don’t even get that far. The knee-jerk reaction is so powerful. Why is that? Gah.

  3. sanity tips

    “sometimes it is best to praise the good and ignore the bad, they like reactions from parents”
    “relax,this too will pass”,
    “if they don’t ‘rebel’ now, they will when they are 30.”
    “laughter transforms a crisis into a comedy of manners”
    ” they always come back to their true selves it just might take a decade or so”

    (quotes from me)

  4. this gives me a good idea for another teenager post!

    hate to tell you, but the frontal lobe area of the brain that is responsible for rational decisions and thinking is not fully developed till a person is 25!!! WE HAVE SPECIAL BIRTHDAT PARTIES FOR WHEN ONE OF OURS HITS A QUATER Of A CENTURY

    • Diana

      Funny you mention the frontal lobe! I was just quoting this fact to my 19-yr-old nephew less than an hour ago! Also, every time my teenager does something “illogical” that she can’t explain a reason for, she smiles at me and says “frontal lobe?!” She knows that is a valid “reason”, but does not “excuse” any responsibility for it! It does help lighten the intensity of the situation and we can calmly go from there.

  5. Diana

    Kate,
    I understand all of your very well-stated concerns and struggles! I think it is great that he wants to journal. Perhaps he will still share most things with you, but there are likely thoughts that he has that he already keeps to himself and sometimes writing out thoughts helps to deal with them. If he wants to rant about his annoying brother, maybe he will find more comfort in writing it down and less need to rage at him in person! Also, if his mother is getting on his case, he can’t very well say that TO HER, can he? (Though she likely already is aware of it!) When I found some notes of my daughter’s at that age, they were silly little things that would likely have embarrased her to share with her mother, but were not a big deal. I think it’s the “not knowing” part that is so scary, especially as they become teenagers and learn how to mask their thoughts and desires, especially when they fear consequences for them. An open communication and frequent conversations about what he thinks or feels about things is the best way to make sure that the journaling does not become a substitute to retreat to instead of conversation with you. He needs to know that he can always come to you for anything, but that does not mean that he always WILL. If he is a deep-thinker, engaging him in conversation about his perspective will help him know you respect his viewpoint and create opportunities for helping him see other perspectives that he may not have considered. There are many of us on this same journey!
    My teenager is a calm, deep-thinker, “pleaser”, and well-behaved, kind, compassionate, loveable child. She rarely tries my patience, she often causes me great concern.
    I also have a “button pusher”. Sometimes, in the rare moments when she is calm in my arms, I just thank God for the moment and for all that she is. She tests me. I often fail. Always, we begin again.The storms pass as quickly as they pop up. At least she is “predictable” in her unpredictability. She will misbehave. She will climb. She will destroy. She will throw a fit. She will run everywhere she goes, whether it is appropriate or not. She will eat any cookie within reach and find a way to reach one not obviously within reach. She often tries my patience, and frequently causes me concern over her physical safety with her fearless and clueless nature!.She often threatens my sanity!
    They are both beautiful and terrifying creatures!

    • I’ve been thinking often lately that I need to take more time just to talk to Alex. We seriously need a mommy-Alex date day. Of course, maybe I need a Mommy-Daddy weekly lunch date first…

  6. So much already said here, but I have to say this reminded me of when my kids started asking for journals (not diaries…those are for girls, apparently). Toby has one with a lock, which he constantly misplaces. I do not snoop, because I can clearly remember MY first diary, too, and how terrible I felt when I found out my mom had read it. We all need a place to feel we can safely explore feelings without anyone looking over our shoulder. I think boys especially need encouragement to be in touch with themselves in this manner…they are too often told to ‘brave everything out’, you know? Maybe let him know he can always write you notes, too, that will be private, if he wants to ‘talk’ about things he’s too shy to articulate in person. We’ve had success with this communication method over the years.

    • This was definitely a reality check, because up till now I always wanted to read everything he writes. I mean, I still do, but now I realize we’re crossing the point where that would be a privacy violation. It makes me sad. I like your idea about notes, though. I imagine he could take me to task for my behavior quite well. 🙂

  7. Colleen

    I agree – a beautiful and terrifying thing. When my boys were young adults I apologized to them for the times I may have been impatient or lost my temper or the times I spanked them. They both said they didn’t really remember any of that and my youngest son said, “Don’t worry, mom. I probably deserved it.”
    🙂

  8. Yes, the relationship is beautiful, terrifying and even mystical, made so by the bonds love forges and God ties to our heartstrings. I was thinking, as I walked this morning, about all the meals to feed the hungry brood, and all the years of diapers and the like, and how without those demands on our time and space, we would not have to devote so much to our little ones and would soon become dismissive and they would never know us or we them.

    My kids are grown now, or so they think, and the love they return makes it all holy and worth the endless chores and thankless tasks. Hang in there, Katheleen. I think you’re quite the wonder.

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