Stephen is my absolute middle child. Number 3 of 5 children, he is also at what I consider to be one of the most difficult ages of toddlerhood (4). He is strong-willed and determined, which are in and of themselves wonderful attributes to have. However, for a four-year-old who just will not be quiet at mass because he is so intent on asking you (not in his church voice, either) why those lights are up there on the ceiling, and just will not take "I don't know", "because Fr. Mike put them there", "to light up the church", or any other variation for an answer, it can be quite trying.
I was sick yesterday with a bad cold. When we walked into mass, the kids started to be quite themselves for their ages, and I prayed, "Lord, please give me the strength to be loving with them today, and not to snap at them if they misbehave." I was so very impressed with the good behavior that resulted from all of the kids, but most especially from Stephen. The Friday before we had been at a holy hour, and I timed him out at least ten times (yes, you can time your children out during adoration, haha!). We were the loudest family there, and I was at the end of my rope.
Most of our stuggle comes with just getting him to sit still and not roll around everywhere (which, at four years old, is something he should be capable of, at least for a few minutes at a time). With my older boys, if they are fidgeting or not standing when they are supposed to, I discovered that if I hold out my hand to them, they will reach up for me. Then, simply by holding their hand they will stand up. I'm not sure why, but it's so much better than disciplining them, because they choose it for themselves. And it becomes something to affirm them, not to correct them.
So I put my hand out for Stephen (who was laying on his back on the pew), but he wasn't having it. He rolled around completely ignoring me. I always try to get them to look into my eyes before I say something to them, but he wouldn't even look at me. I could feel my blood starting to boil, and suppressed the urge deep within me to just yank him up out of his seat and say, "YOU STAND NOW BECAUSE I SAID SO AND DO NOT IGNORE ME!!!" Instead, I remembered that he is my buddy.
Earlier in the summer, I began using the buddy system with my kids. If we are going out somewhere, I pair the older ones with a little one to help them get ready, and hold each other's hands while we're out (I had seen it on 19 Kids and Counting). They all responded really well to it, but Stephen did in particular. I noticed that when he played with his older brothers, he started calling them his buddies, and it really meant something special to him. He made up this saying, "buddies always stay together." It has been great, because as the third boy (and with the next child being a girl), I notice that often he get left out of what the older kids are doing, and that he didn't seem to have the same bond as the older boys did. This new concept of a buddy gave him something special to attach to them, and deepened his feelings for them (and they for him). I could get the older boys to do anything for him if I reminded them that he was their buddy. It was beautiful!
So there in the church, faced with the iron will of my four-year-old, and praying for the strength not to just loose it on him right there, my hand still outstretched I said, "hey buddy?" He turned and looked at me with his sweet little smile, took my hand, and stood up straight and still beside me. For the rest of mass, anytime he started to get out of hand I would do the same thing, and my buddy was happy to pay attention and stand beside me.
I watched a documentary about elephants recently. In elephant families everyone follows a matriarch, and the bond with her is so strong that the elephants will turn away even from hunger if she calls to them. I realized at mass that the same can be true for the kids, that if I call on the strength of my bond with Stephen, instead of being stern, he will respond with his affection for me. Don't get me wrong, I know there are times when strict discipline is required. But far too often I think I go to that first, out of desparation. And yesterday, feeling completely empty and drained of myself, I cried out to God and He gave me the grace to see that there is another way, a better way.
Thank you Lord, for showing me that without you I don't have what it takes - but that with you, and in You, I have everything I need to treat my children with the love and respect they so deserve.