Be A Parent Like God
I have found that being a parent is one of the great pleasures in life. It’s been a little over a year now since my son was born, and boy has it been interesting. But, as I look through resources on how to parent my little boy where he is I have come to quite a startling recollection. Have you ever tried to do a googled and found Christian parenting sites discuss early childhood development or talk about how to handle some of the nuances of parenting a baby/toddler? When you have the time, I suggest doing so. If you are like me, you will think much of what you find interesting, and some you will find quite disturbing. There was one website I was reading where a parent actually stated that a child of 18 months had the ability to control himself and that temper tantrums were merely their expression of their own selfish desires. It is an interesting theory, but is it right?
I have been lucky enough to do quite a bit of development psychology for my education degrees (at a Christian University no less) and have come away with a new understanding of what it means to be the parent of a young child. The first few years of a child’s life is filled with new, scary, exciting things that are by and large far beyond their ability to comprehend. That being said, children at this age go through changes that can sometimes be dramatic and even surprising, even for themselves. My son is about 14 months old (give or take a week). Lately we have been dealing with temper tantrums. Whenever he is told no, or we need to do something (like change a diaper) that he is not interested in, a full-scale tantrum goes into full effect. Now some of these Christian sites would tell you that the child is being intentionally narcissistic in these moments and that the behavior warrants punishment.
This could not be further from the truth. Some will use Scripture to equivocate their backwards and ignorant understanding of their own children’s brains as some kind of grounding text for their decision-making. Now if you’ve been reading here for a while now, you know that nothing irks me quite like people trying to proof text their own laziness so that they can be free of a guilty conscience. I have no issue when it comes to drawing from scripture how we parent our children. However, if we are to do this, let us keep in mind that the ultimate example of a parent is the one in Scripture, and his ultimate revelation as to whom he is centers on the person of Jesus (Col. 1:15). So let me get back to the issue of a temper tantrum. A child of 12-18 months (and sometimes till 24 months depending on the child) will have temper tantrums. This is not to spite you, or to embarrass you, but it is because they are learning how to control their emotions and communicate. Much of a temper tantrum comes from the inability to communicate as effectively as they would like to.
Imagine for a moment that you lost your ability to read and write, and that you could not speak, how frustrating would it be for you to communicate to others your feelings, thoughts, desires and so forth. It would be pretty frustrating. In fact, you might even throw a fit time and again due to the frustration. Now you and I as adults have certain coping mechanisms that we have developed that help us control our inhibitions (some of us have learned how to do this in healthier ways than others). Children from 12-24 months do not have these mechanisms yet, they are still trying to develop and understand their own emotions.
To act as if a child is manipulating you at this age into doing what they want because they are some kind of evil genius isn’t just wishful thinking, its proven scientifically untrue. This is not to say that children are not desperately wicked like the rest of us, they are, but their wickedness is far different from ours. Their sin is founded in ignorance, and cognitive immaturity; your sin (and mine for that matter) are born of a malicious intention to rebel. Now, this does change, and usually does with the advent of speech. Speech or the development of language is a turning point in the cognitive process of a child because it is at that moment that they can begin to store information that is not based on the senses. When children can begin to speak to express themselves, then tantrums can be cracked down upon because they have another outlet (talking) in which to express themselves. Until then however, tantrums are a (not the only way) way in which they vent their frustrations.
The last thing they need to help them from their mini fit of rage is the cold shoulder (which was actual advice given in one article) from the one person(s) that they depend on the most. Look, if you want your child to think you are going to abandon them when they are no longer convenient, then by all means ignore them. But if you want your child to understand that you love them whether there is a smile on their face or their eyes are filled with tears you need to be sure that you are present for them. This isn’t to say that you can pull them out of these tantrums, but it is to say that you can be there for them. Now keep in mind being there for them doesn’t mean giving in to them. If you take something away because they are using something improperly or because they could hurt themselves or others and they throw a fit, there is a way to help them manage that fit.
Some Steps to Help
So here are some things to keep in mind when dealing with a child throwing a temper tantrum.
- Get yourself under control. Children are impressively capable of reading body language and intonation. If you are yelling at them, or showing aggressive behavior because you are angry at them for their fit, then all you are doing is making a bad situation worse. You are not going to intimidate a child throwing a fit. All it tells them is that you care more about appearances than you do how they actually feel. So get your own head on straight. They aren’t doing this to spite you, or because they are a selfish ball of rage, it is because a circumstance has led to a very strong emotion that they don’t know how to handle yet.
- Be present. One of the worse things you can do at this stage of development is walk away. Many, many Christian sites will tell you that this is the best thing to do, but they state this with little to no actual research to back their claim. In fact, all of modern psychology tells us that at this age, parents being present while children go through episodes like this helps to strengthen the parent-child bond and goes to show them that you are in it for the long hall. Remember, you are the only two people they rely on for everything, if you disappear when they need you, what does that tell them about you and about themselves?
- Be comforting. Again, remember that your kid is learning his/her way through how to understand and manage their emotions. Whether it be sadness, anger, frustration and so on. These emotions are all very powerful and are difficult for many adults to completely control. If full-grown adults don’t have their reactions to the emotions perfected, what makes you think that it is even remotely possible with a child of 12-24 months?!? So pat them on the back and tell them in a soft voice that you love them, and that you know their struggling. Sometimes this in and of itself, just the acknowledgement of their emotions, is enough to pull them out of it. Other times there is nothing that can bring them out of it. When they are finished (and you have been there with them telling them it would be all right) make sure to acknowledge that they were upset and ask for the reasons they were upset. Validating their emotions and seeking the cause tells your child that you are interested in their emotions and that you can be someone who they can trust.
- Figure out what happened. After your child has calmed down try to talk to them about why they were so upset. Ask them, point, do whatever you can to make them feel like you are trying to listen to them. This will go miles to help you later on when your child can actually speak.
Now obviously this isn’t a fix all. There will be times that none of this works, but being present in those difficult moments, in those moments where your child isn’t convenient tells them something about you and about their importance in your life. When thinking of the parent child relationship I cannot help but think about how God envisions us. How many times has God stood over us and comforted us even when we were not convenient (which let us be honest is most of the time). The Holy Spirit, which dwells within each of us is called the comforter and mighty counselor. He is not called the chastiser, or the punisher. In moments of our weakness where we do not understand the world and all the evil in it, he is there to remind us that we have a loving Father. At the end of the day, when we think of our temper tantrums with the Lord, do we see him get up and leave the room? Nope, he is there comforting us, and helping us through those difficult times. He is there helping us with our anger, and frustration, our sorrow and regret. He is present with us in our sufferings and so if he (being the perfect measure of a parent) is present, should we not also be present for our own children when the going gets tough? If God is gracious towards us, should we not be gracious towards our own children?
Please keep in mind that what I have written really only applies to children from 12-24 months and even this is a cursory approximation. The principles here however can translate to any age, as we should always be eager to parent our children as God parents us. Make sure that you know your child as God knows us, taking the time to just live life with them. Keep at it parents, and resist the urge to turn your children into the enemy. Remember always that children are a blessing from the Lord (Ps. 127:3), and that we should appreciate that blessing in every moment. I hope this finds all of you well, Peace and Blessings.
(AKA The Nerdy Theologian