“Yeah, I’ve meant to talk to you about her,” read the text. “She doesn’t listen to instruction in any context.”
I mean, yes, I know this to be true of this particular child, of course. But so often our children behave better for non-mom adults. I had hoped this might be the case. Evidently not. The inevitable flood of mom shame washed over me. I breathed through it, and replied.
“Can we get together to talk about it?”
She agreed and the day arrived with the normal amount of anxiety one expects when handling a child’s persistent behavior issues. I greeted this lifelong friend with what I hoped was only a little defensiveness, and we launched right in. She began, “I’ve been thinking about it. She has problems with impulse control and personal space.”
“Yes. That’s true.” (What else can I say? I fight this battle in my home nearly every minute this particular child is awake. This is not news to me.)
“They both come from an inability to live in community with others.”
Yes, actually. Not only are these issues community problems, but the majority of the behavioral challenges we face with all four children can be summed up as difficulty living in community. They (not unlike their parents) have a hard time seeing past their selfish desires to the needs of people around them, and it leads to all kinds of conflict and sin.
This one phrase—“living in community”—has subtly shifted the culture of our family over the last several months. It’s changed how we look at and talk about daily interactions. We strive to give our kids the tools they need to live well with each other. Living in community as the Chapman family means we have a shared story, we seek gratitude, and we create an atmosphere of grace and truth.
In the baby years, a shared story is assumed. Through my first months of motherhood, my firstborn and I basically functioned as a single unit. As my kids have grown in age and number, it’s become easy to look at our family life as a bunch of individual needs to meet and personalities to manage and problems to solve. When we start looking through the lens of “shared story,” these fragments come together. We’re still individuals, but we work as a unit to support each other, to celebrate victories and manage difficulties.
Because we love and serve a God who gives gifts graciously and abundantly, gratitude is to be our identity. Since I read Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts several years ago, I’ve kept a gratitude journal. While I remember very little about the content of her book, the practice of thanking God for little things has been transformative for my heart and mind. I now find myself automatically looking for blessings throughout my day, and they somewhat regularly spill out of my mouth in my children’s presence. I didn’t even realize this until I heard my daughter, then a toddler, exclaim in the car, “Mama! Look at the beautiful sky! We should thank Jesus for it!” My heart warmed, and I obliged. Now, this isn’t to say that the same child doesn’t struggle with entitlement at least as often as she expresses her thanks, but I’m happy that she (and the others) know how to find their “thankful hearts.” Now we’re working on finding and expressing gratitude for each other. This comes less automatically for each of us; we’re trying to grow that direction.
The grittiest part of any community is cultivating an atmosphere of grace and truth. Grace allows us to come to each other with the understanding that we will each sin and be sinned against, but we will just as certainly experience and extend forgiveness. This creates safe space for truth to thrive. Truth is more than “not lying” and directly confronting problems. It is speaking the things that are right and good. In our family, we have always had a pretty good handle on the need to avoid deceit and tackle issues, but only since we’ve been looking at truth as a necessary climate for community have we considered the other (much larger) part of truth. It’s becoming important to us to affirm the positive things we see in our kids and their behavior and attitudes and to celebrate the good we encounter and the contributions each person makes to the family unit. When we love truth—the whole of it—as a family, the harder parts of truth feel a little safer. I see this clearly in marriage—my husband and I generally speak what is right and good about each other and our relationship. So when a problem needs to be addressed, it’s in the context of the larger truth, and we can often talk about it as calmly and unapologetically as the weather, because safety is well established. I want to make this safety the norm with my little people as well.
I wish I could say that our family is really good at each of these aspects of community. We’re not. We struggle constantly even to remember that community is our goal. But, as with any core value or vision statement, this focus gives us something to grow toward. And we are growing. The child I mentioned earlier, while she still struggles to listen, control her impulses and respect personal space of others, is showing glimmers of understanding. Yesterday, after a fight with a couple of her siblings, she came to me in tears, telling me she might need to give up a particular toy that was at the heart of the struggle. “Cheetah is causing us to fight, so I think I might have to give her up to repair my relationships.” I believe she can probably learn to live in community with or without this particular stuffed animal, but that her relationships with her siblings outweigh her need for her very favorite toy gives me hope for all of us.
My thoughts on community have been heavily influenced by Living Into Community by Christine D. Pohl.
This post is part of my series, 31 days of speaking the truth. You can find the whole list of them here on the first post of the series.