Winning the Heart of a Child

I watched my three-year-old’s face light up in the glow of his new toy, a faux-computer for toddlers designed to teach letter and number recognition. Immediately captivated, he danced back and forth hopping from foot to foot, impatient as I tore away the packaging.

“Give it to me, Mommy! I love it!”

He hadn’t even seen what it could do yet. But he knew that he loved it.

I smiled and handed it over, satisfied but also troubled, on some level. It wasn’t until I was lying in bed later that night that I could really put my finger on why.

He was more excited by that toy then by anything we’d done together that day. It’s influence over him was more apparent and maybe greater than mine, in that moment.

I realize that to be mother or father is to become slowly and surely irrelevant, in the most positive sense. As our children grow up, they, by design, grow away from us, maturing in independence and competence and, please God, virtue.

But this felt different. It felt, to my melancholic musings, like a snapshot preview into a possible future. A future that will be filled with competing voices vying for our children’s attention, voices that will be at times louder and more persuasive than mine or my husband’s. Voices whose influence I might resent, or even oppose.

We’ve got such a limited window, I thought to myself, lying in the dark of my bedroom, fighting a rising feeling of anxiety. How can we make the most of the time we have left to be the main influence in their lives?

I don’t propose to have definitive answers. With the way technology is evolving and with the introduction of devices targeting younger and younger consumers, the inevitable march of progress demands that competing voices will raise themselves and demand the attention of our kids. I know this. And I’m not anti-technology! There is so much good to be done via the internet, as our Holy Father would have us believe. As would his predecessor. And the one before him, too.

It’s what we do with technology that informs its nature. And it’s what we do with our children in terms of preparation and cultivation and training that helps to shape theirs.

Are some temperaments going to be easier to coax along in terms of virtue and obedience and critical thinking? I’m thinking yes. And for our eldest son, a consummate sanguine if ever one was born, I’m recognizing the lure of shiny screens and exciting and beautiful images is almost irresistible.

So it’s my job, then, to meet the child God designed – fearfully and wonderfully, I might add – and do my very best to raise him up to the level of holiness God has called him to. Sainthood, to be precise.

No big deal, right?

The thought alone is enough to make even a seasoned mother blanch. I’m only 4 years into this gig, and I’m shaking in my disciplinary boots. When I see his eyes light up like that over a simple toy, or when I see the fierce desire he harbors for my iPhone and my laptop, I cannot help but face the future with a bit of trepidation.

I think that’s probably a good thing.

I have, best I can figure it, approximately 8 more years before my primary influence over him begins to wane and peer and media influences begin to take my place. Even if we homeschool. Even without cable. Heck, even if we decided to forgo home internet connectivity.

It is unavoidable that my children will become influenced by forces beyond my control.

And that’s okay.

My job, I’m realizing with a painful lump in my throat and a pang of sadness in my heart, is to raise them up and away from me. To equip them with the necessary training in virtue and discernment and critical thinking skills to help them meet and evaluate those influences and then…make their own decisions.

It hurts.

It hurts thinking that with every meal, every nighttime nursing session and every new skill transmitted, I’m equipping my babies to leave me. But it’s in my job description. It is my job description. To mother is to release, to send out.

The real question I’m grappling with these days is how to make the most of the minutes (the sometimes long, long tedious minutes) and hours and days and the few, precious years I’ve been given dominion over their little spirits. What can I say – or not say – in this moment, in this difficult situation, in this epic sibling throw-down, that will resonate into eternity?

Usually I don’t hit quite the right note.

Most days I’m vacillating between losing my temper and admitting defeat under a relentless barrage of requests for cartoons and yogurt tubes. I’m either a stern authoritarian with a mean streak or a flabby failure flopped on the couch, a laptop spinning the latest from PBS Kids, holding their rapt attention from the coffee table.

It’s a struggle. But it’s one I must engage. I must, because if I don’t rise to the occasion of training the wildness and the willfulness out of them, the culture will train them. And as I look around and see little people who have been formed and influenced by the culture we inhabit, I cringe to think what the future might hold for my own small people if mommy doesn’t get her act together.

It’s ironic that some of the struggles I foresee being most intense for them – namely, the capacity to engage technology in a meaningful way that isn’t dehumanizing or damaging, is also one of my greatest struggles as a stay at home mom. And ultimately, what influences mommy will influence the entire family, for better or for worse. I can’t check out during these intense, exhausting early years and expect to wake up to reasonable seven-year-olds who have excellent attention spans and a taste for classic literature. It’s all me right now. And that is both terrifying and awe-inspiring.

Does good parenting guarantee a good result? By no means. And can kids from great families turn out really rotten? Absolutely. But no matter the variables, I still have to step up to the plate and pitch my innings. And every afternoon that I manage to resist the pull to veg out with a magazine or vent out on social media instead of leaving it all on the field during the 3-5 pm graveyard shift when my house becomes overrun with wild animals crazed for carbohydrates, I win the day.

God, give me the strength to power through till dinner time, and the wisdom to know when it’s perfectly acceptable to hand over the last 30 minutes before daddy gets home to Curious George.

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Jenny Uebbing is a freelance editor and writer for Catholic News Agency. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband Dave and their growing army of toddlers. She writes about marriage, life issues, politics, sociological trends, and traveling with kids here.

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