As the Twig is Bent

Indignities Visited Upon Small People

His mother was a step behind him, shrieking, “No! No! No! Don’t touch that flower!” Then, “Oh, you brat! You little beast. See what you’ve done? You picked the flower.” This screeching was followed by a firm spanking and the child was buckled into the car.

Honestly, I can’t imagine any scenario where I’d call my child a brat. I’ve been stressed many times and I’ve made parenting mistakes aplenty, but “brat” just isn’t in my repertoire. The incident really troubled me. The little boy followed a natural instinct and while we certainly must train our children not to follow every instinct, we temper that training with empathy towards the heart of the child. This child meant no harm; his gesture was innocent. And even if he had been malicious, “brat” was not an appropriate response.

A few days later, as I was loading groceries into my van, I heard a plaintive, whining, wail, “Shut up, Megan!” The wail was coming from a man in his 30s and he was whining at his daughter. He looked and sounded ridiculous, a spoiled five-year-old with a deep and resonating voice. I don’t allow my children to say “shut up.” And I don’t say it myself. I can pretty much guarantee that Megan will say it.

In both instances, no respect was paid to the child. Neither parent acknowledged the child’s dignity. And both parents missed opportunities to parent far more effectively. Respecting the child, seeing the value in the child at all times, is vital to training the heart of the child.

Respect: Learned and Earned

It is likely that the little boy in the first example will never pick a pansy outside the ballet school again. The behavior was extinguished. But what else happened? He learned that he is a brat. He learned that his mother shrieks and hits when she is bothered. He learned that adults don’t understand little boys who love flowers. He learned that shrieking, hitting and name-calling are adult ways to express displeasure at some one else’s actions. He did not learn respect. He knows his mother does not respect him, but perhaps more importantly, he does not respect his mother. She was a perfect negative role model.

When we treat our children with dignity, we teach them to be respectful. We teach them to be empathetic. We train their hearts to look at another person and to see Christ there. A child is a very astute observer. This is the person who has learned to walk and to talk and to use vocabulary appropriately without a single formal lesson. He has absorbed such things from his environment. He has also absorbed much more.

I cringe when my toddler puts a toy phone to her ear, sits at the computer and pretends to type, and balances her doll on her knee — all at the same time. I make a mental note not to mutli-task. Later that evening, when the same child tenderly tucks three baby dolls into a cradle and then crawls in herself to “nurse” them to sleep, I am glad for every night I’ve put my life on hold in order to hold her.

Little Sponges

Our precious children have absorbent minds. Every detail of our behavior becomes for them a lesson. What do we teach them? Are we encouraging and positive and optimistic? Do we acknowledge that we have faults and humbly apologize for our shortcomings, while encouraging our children to do the same? Do we hold ourselves to an adult standard of behavior and gently teach our children that mature self-discipline is the goal?

Most of us were not at all grown up when we had our first children. We were selfish and egocentric and immature. Christian parenting has required us to die to ourselves again and again. Jesus asks us to get out of bed on a cold night and bring a cup of water to a child with a fever — five or six times. He asks us to swallow the impulse to shriek and instead to kneel beside the flower bed, appreciate the beauty of the pansies with our wee child and explain to him that those flowers are there for everyone to enjoy. Jesus asks us to see Christ in every child and to be Christ to one another. His Word exhorts us to “encourage one another and build each other up.” Mature Christians do that.

We all have bad days — tired days, lonely days, sick days. And we all trip and fall sometimes as we journey towards holiness. But we must be very careful not to let a child bear our burdens. We must be very careful not to kick a child when we are down. We must be the grown-ups.

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

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage