A Matter of the Heart

I recently read a letter from a mother of a 3-year-old. She was determined that her child would learn to obey. She characterized him as whiny, manipulative and extremely disobedient. In her letter, she informed me that the battle lines were drawn and she would cheerfully break his will.

The first day of the new regime began with a series of disobedient behaviors, screaming, spanking, timeouts and then hugs. Over and over again it went.

At naptime, the child, who no longer napped, was only content to be alone in his room for an hour. His mother was accustomed to his taking a two-hour nap and she was bound and determined not to relinquish the time alone she considered precious, particularly after such an exhausting morning. She was dismayed that the child called to her incessantly and would not play happily alone on his bed. As I read her plea for suggestions, all I wanted to do was to scoop that child up and snuggle with him on the couch with a good book for those 45 minutes. Far more time and energy would have been gained for that mother if she had invested some holding time in her child.

Raising a child is not a war. We don’t need to wake up every morning — or any morning — with a battle mentality. We don’t need to break anyone’s will or to beat him into submission. There is no line to draw in the sand. There is only a circle, big enough for parent and child. Child-rearing is a romance. We win their hearts for good; we win their souls for God.

The most compelling way to do this is to show them what it is to live as Christians, to witness to our children that goodness is what makes us happy. We want them to want to be good, for goodness’ sake. Christ walked on earth as a humble servant. He was a Teacher who stooped to wash the feet of His students. He did not rant and rave and demand. He did not degrade the sinner. Instead, He illustrated with stories and by example. He worked hard and did His duty and He invited His disciples to follow. He showed them how to live.

A child who has spent the morning being spanked and exiled is understandably distraught when he is sent back to that same room in the afternoon and expected to play happily for an hour and a half. What that child called for was comfort and consolation and the reassurance that he is loved. He was banished when he should have been held. He was punished when he should have been taught.

When a child whines, we stop and tell him to repeat his request in a clear and pleasant voice. He does, and we respond in kind. After several sessions like this, he learns that it is more expedient to skip the whining step.

A manipulative child? What is he manipulating? He is plying for the attention of his mother, the center of his universe, the source of his nourishment, the first and most important teacher he will ever have. What does he learn when he looks to her? Does he learn that he is undesirable? That his behavior makes her recoil and react with despair and disgust? That she cannot elicit positive behavior so she must send him away or exert her authority by inflicting pain? If so, he will try again and again, in his clumsy, childish way, to manipulate her to give him his heart’s desires: the secure knowledge that he is loved and the safety of her embrace.

After a disobedient child is spanked and sent away, the hug is hollow. It might make the mother feel better but the child is not comforted. Instead, he thinks he is unlovable, unworthy to be in the mother’s presence when he is naughty or screaming (as children do when they are frustrated or afraid) and he regards the hug suspiciously, wondering at the incongruity of his mother’s behavior. The hug offered with a gentle correction assures him that even though he’s made a mistake or behaved foolishly, he is always loved, always held dear.

Love is patient and kind. That is the absolute. Severe and harsh punishment is counterproductive to the goals of educating a Christian child. In the words of St. John Bosco, who dedicated his life to loving and living with juvenile delinquents (much tougher characters than recalcitrant 3-year-olds), “Remember that education is a matter of the heart. Let us use all means to become master of that fortress which locks itself off from all severity and harshness. Let us make ourselves loved, and we shall see hearts open to us with surprising ease.”

Elizabeth Foss is a freelance writer from northern Virginia. Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home by Elizabeth Foss can be purchased at www.4reallearning.com.

This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage