Friday, January 10, 2014

Why Moms Need More Swagger

When my adorable son (who hasn’t yet read Dr. Spock) was six-week-old, he seemed to feel that if he was awake, I should be either nursing or walking him. Lying on his blanket or sitting quietly in my lap was dead boring and not to be tolerated for more than five minutes. I joked that the little guy had thoughtfully decided to help me lose the “baby-weight” by preventing me from ever making lunch.

I was discussing this with one of my sisters, and the topic of teaching babies to wait for gratification came up. “Well,” I said, “You can argue against making babies wait. You can argue that by responding to a little baby right away, you are teaching him to trust that you will meet all of his needs. Besides, if he never has to screech his head off to get stuff, maybe he won’t learn to screech his head off. I guess I should just keep walking and nursing him.”

Before she could respond, I added, “But of course, waiting teaches babies that their needs will be met even if there is a delay. If you don’t always give them what they want, maybe they will learn that they aren’t the center of the universe. I guess I should stop always nursing and walking him. But, of course, on the other hand…”

That is the curse of being able to see both sides of an issue. It is difficult to decide on anything. Me, I tend to see both sides so well that I veer all over the place in a cloud of indecision. It’s going to get even worse when my son is old enough to verbalize his opinion. Then I'll veer in three directions instead of just two. I'm not alone in this--I’ve noticed a lot of sweet moms who are too gentle, hesitant, and indecisive. Recently I observed one such mother whose five-year-old son disregarded her simple instruction ("come here"). When dad stepped in to intervene, the mom said quickly, “I’m not sure if I was clear,” and headed off any reproof that might have been given to the boy. She gaves her son the benefit of the doubt just in case her instructions were imperfectly delivered. As a result of this pattern, her child feels free to flaunt his mother’s orders. Even inside my cloud of parental indecision, I know that this isn’t what I want for my family. I would hate the chaos of children who run around my house but don’t respect my authority as a parent.  

When I was a child, I assumed that my mom knew everything. If she announced that a behavior was unacceptable, her tone of voice made it obvious that she was right. Even if I didn’t admit it at the time, even if I later broke her rule, I believed deep down that her rule was aligned with the moral core of the universe and that I was being naughty. Her confidence was convincing. A lot of parenting techniques require parental conviction. When my husband was growing up, his parents utilized small fines as consequences for misdeeds. If one of their children was mean to a sibling, the mean child had to pay the fine to that sibling because he or she had been having fun at the siblings’ expense. This consequence is awesome, but it wouldn’t work unless the parent was willing to believe that she was reading the situation accurately and could identify when a child had crossed the “mean” line.

Since my mom knew everything, I’ve been waiting to grow up and know everything too. Unfortunately, that is not working. I’m forced to realize that there is a difference between knowing 100% that one is right, and being willing to act on 90% certainty (or even 65%). Yet sometimes it is a parents’ duty to act, even if she is not fully confident, because a lack of action suggests to a child that doing the right thing is not important. I’ve realized that sometimes we moms need to move past our own internal wibbly-wobblies, throw one side of the argument out of the window, and do something. Sometimes it is a mom’s job to not see her child’s side of an argument (“but…but...I didn’t hear you,” when the kid would have been deaf not to hear, or, “but..but…I can’t pick up my toys because I want to read first,” or, “’s not fair”). My mom was never unreasonable or inflexible, but her confident demands gave me security. I felt safe in the hands of a mom who knew what was right, what was wrong, and what was unacceptable. I want my son to have that security too, even if providing it is downright painful for a wibly-wobbler like me.

I realize that some parents err naturally on the opposite extreme. However, for people like me, the parenting challenge that we must meet is the need for confidence. We must get a bit of swagger in our step and a note of authority in our voice. We must act like we know what we are doing. 

Even if we don’t. Because who does? Fortunately, God is merciful and children are resilient.  


Linking-up to Essential Fridays


  1. Agreed! I have the same memories of my mom; she is a very gentle, calm woman but what she said was THE LAW. And I don't recall viewing that as tyrannical. It was just life: Mom knew what was what, and we didn't.

  2. This is an excellent article! I'd like to add a little explanation of how my daughters had the opportunity to explain their side of the argument.

    In raising my girls I was firm and confident in my commands but I knew that I could occasionally misinterpret a situation. So at a calm time (not in the midst of correcting a behavior) I explained to my girls that if I make a demand or behavior correction they have one shot...after my demand, they have one opportunity to calmly explain their viewpoint on the matter; I will consider what they have said (so long as they are not whiny - I have no tolerance for whiny, it drives me crazy!) then I will either stick by my first decision or will make a change in light of the new information. My second "demand", then, will be the final word on the topic - end of discussion.

    By this they learned to think through their "excuse" to present it to me clearly and, because they had input, they mostly didn't feel they were being treated unfairly. And I learned to remain relatively calm so that I would make the right decision the first time and not be corrected too often!!

    When they were preteens and teens there were more instances when they didn't agree with my final decision. Then my line was "I understand you do not agree with me on this and it is OK for you to not agree. I have a bigger frame of reference and a lot more experience so... like it or not, you will do as I say.

    The girls seem to have turned out OK! They certainly aren't whiny!!! :)

    1. A chance to appeal mom's decision is probably especially important as kids get beyond the toddler and small child stage. It seems like a lot of successful moms have some kind of system for that.

      Non-whiny kids are definitely an excellent thing! I hope to raise such kids.

  3. I really get what you're saying. Anna. Most of the time I feel like I'm vacillating between authoritarian (reproving sin, instructing) and permissive (nurturing, caretaking, playing). Being the gentle, passive, cooperative type, the latter comes more naturally to me; I often feel more like I'm playing a role when I have to lay down the law.

    Anyway, my experience in mothering 3 individuals (the first my polar opposite in temperament...his baby-and-toddlerhood were quite the crucible...for both of us:) has helped shed light for me on why there are plenty of evangelical parenting programs, but no Lutheran ones. The vocation of mother involves a lot of paradox: sinner/saint, law/gospel. And like all true vocations, motherhood is a cross, it sought us out, there's no saying 'I quit!', it requires (and brings about) our daily death to self.

    But it is a blessed death (despite how it may look or feel). All those little points at which I question my judgment or my fitness to be a mother, when I'm confused or exhausted or just plain bored, I have to remember that is what vocation is all about, about losing yourself in service to your little neighbor. (And that is not a popular theme in American parenting books...even the evangelical ones!;)

    Thanks for a good, thought-provoking read (as usual)! :)

    1. This is a very good, thought-provoking comment! I was recently talking with my mother-in-law about the lack of an online, Lutheran Mothering presence. Maybe we should start an online magazine or something. You are very right about the challenge of living in the tension of the law/gospel paradox. It would be easier to simply serve one's children without correcting them, or to correct and train without serving. Easier, but much worse.

    2. :) I like that idea, Anna! And not that it hasn't been done before (and done well, by the Concordian Sisters, IMHO ), but it looks at present there is somewhat of a void. I'm glad you've been able to step in! Maybe someday I'll write/blog more than I do now...someday when all my children agree to sleep all through the night. ;)

  4. Anna, this is exactly what I've been struggling with lately. Hormones don't help with the indecision. Neither does a sick child. :P

  5. There is such wisdom here. I think children need the security of being able to trust in our authority as parents. And yes, we get it wrong... often, but we need to be decisive and reliable. And I think having the humility and accountability to talk things over afterwards with our kids to grow in our understanding of them and apologise if we got it wrong grows us and them.
    Thanks for sharing at Essential Fridays.
    Mel from Essential Thing Devotions


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