Joseph bites, Bernadette cries incessantly and Maria talks back. I think we're doing ok by Fang and Puddles, but I confess that I'm stumped by Maria's mouth. I read in one parenting book that the "proper" response is to say calmly, "That is backtalk and it is not allowed." While I was turning that simple tactic over in my head, I tried to figure out what was provoking Maria to talk back so frequently. It didn't take long to nail it: brilliance. It's her oversized intellect. Our instructions and decisions don't always make sense to her lively mind. With not a shred of humility to soften her, she just thinks that she knows better (and, as Richard wryly points out, she is often right....truly.) I further realized that I'm not bothered by her desire to see the order, reason and goodness behind authority. To the contrary. And if she lacks the maturity or the tools to express herself properly, well, isn't it my job to correct that?
So I've attempted to phrase a question that she can use without giving offense. I wanted words that a nearly-five year old could grasp - and a depth that would last for life. Finally I settled on "Will you help me understand why?" My hope is that the spirit of this question may spare her from being sent to her room, disliked, expelled, fired, divorced and/or excommunicated. Of course, as I also wish to spare her from being struck by a car, burned or impaled, I still have to figure out how to set boundaries for when immediate compliance is required with absolutely no questions asked. As we are still hard at work establishing in her mind that the time to comply is the first time a parent gives directions, maybe the simplest solution is found along the lines of shoot first, ask questions later.
Perhaps this business of "wanting to let her ask why" is "soft parenting" but there's so much of Maria in me at thirty-three that sometimes I can't help but empathize with the drama of being four and a half. When I was twenty and formulating my intellectual backtalk against God the Father (and the maternal Church), I think I felt all the same things Maria feels when her will and opinions are thwarted by her earthly parents. I simply thought I knew better. I was blessed to stumble upon professors who gave me the benefit of the doubt enough to presume that perhaps what I really was asking was, "Will you help me understand why?" And they did. Because they helped me to understand the goodness and wisdom and order behind divine & church authority, I grew to such absolute trust in these that I can now submit peacefully even when I don't fully "see".
The awesome thing about our ministry programs here is that for the most part, our youth are effectively saying Will you help us understand why? We don't deal with too much surly attitude. Even when we come up against absolute dissent, there is no question too scathing when the attitude behind it is please help me understand. That's true for youth and adults, for friends and family, for questions of faith and politics and all matters pertaining to the proper method of squeezing a tube of toothpaste.
But precious few adults approach conflict with that disarming attitude. Last week I was on a Catholic website. The topic was the upcoming US election. The scathing aggression, put downs, and twisted retorts (from the Catholic writer and Catholic readers) were no different than one would find on a secular blog. Nobody was actually hearing anyone else out. Sarcasm and rudeness prevailed. Anyone who dared suggest that Christian respect might be more appropriate was pounced upon and visciously denounced for sanctimoniousness. (Trying to be holy! On a Christian website! How disgusting!) I thought: If I wanted to listen to this sort of immature bickering, I'd get off the computer and tune back into my daughters. At least my girls' bickering isn't mean-spirited. It's not some lofty Christian ideal that adults ought to be able to disagree and debate in a mutually respectful manner. It's simple maturity. I'm not sure that we live in a culture of maturity anymore.
The experience helped me to realize that many adults need help in curbing their own backtalk - starting with this adult right here. I'm determined to grow in this skill right alongside Maria. I'm making a commitment to grow in having an attitude of will you help me understand why? I find so often that I'm wrong. Or that I'm right, but that the other guy had perfectly legitimate (if imperfect) reasons for his own opinions or actions. I'd also like to start remembering, when faced with the maddeningly irrational behavior of others, that maybe what they really mean - deep down - is will you help me understand why? In fact, I think that may have been what Richard was trying to ask last night when he "brought attention to" my maddeningly irrational habit of leaving half-finished glasses of water all over the house every day. (Obviously this is actually a perfectly normal, healthy and rational habit of mine, and I simply need to bring light to his poor clouded little mind.) But anyway, love, you don't really need to have any clean water glasses available, since you usually drink right out of the kitchen faucet. Between the two of us, we're using just the right number of glasses each day.