This time of year, the newspaper is brimming with glossy pages from local department stores showcasing beautiful mothers interacting quietly and peacefully with their beautiful children.
The ads often feature muted photographs with pastel backgrounds. Mothers throw back their heads in ecstatic laughter at the sheer joy of being in the presence of their obviously gifted children. And the father (fit, tan, and back from his day at work as the president of a multinational corporation) is always looking on happily as he grills, wearing a crisp sport shirt and khaki shorts.
I’m not sure what I expect out of these ads. Realism? A picture of my own grape jelly-stained children and me with bags under my eyes and a stringy ponytail?
From the time we are little, we have been fed a notion of motherhood that is sweet and serene and wrapped in a pink satin bow. No one mentioned to me, before I became a mother, that between my own lactating and newborn Jacob’s spit up, I would likely smell like sour milk by the end of each day.
Our church sometimes adds to the myth of perfect mother, perfect child. Statues and paintings of Mary never show her in the midst of dealing with toddler Jesus in a meltdown. Yet Jesus, arguably the best sharer of all time, once had to be taught to share himself. And Mary, perhaps exasperated after an afternoon of watching little John the Baptist and Jesus together while her cousin ran errands, was his likeliest teacher.
It can be tempting to pretend to be that perfect mom with the perfect kids in the ad. With the right outfit and a pasted-on smile, no one has to know that your 6-year-old lies and your 10-year-old swears.
But I believe that when we look at a child struggling with a particular behavior, we need to keep in mind that there are adults with that same problem. If we can help our child move beyond lying or cheating at 6 or 10 or 15, we have given that child a gift much greater than if we had just pretended everything was fine.
This Mother’s Day we can take a moment to change our mindset about what good parenting “should” look like. In recognizing that change and growth necessarily arise out of difficulty, we can better embrace the parenting challenge we are dealing with right now.
Nothing wrong with bringing them up to neutral: While we’d all like to believe our kids’ behavior is “acceptable” and moving toward “outstanding,” this is in fact quite rare. As a parent, often you’re simply teaching a child how to be a civilized human being. “I never thought I’d find the Playboy site on my eighth-grader’s iPod history,” said Laurie, mother of three. “But I did, and we had to have a talk that I thought was only for the ‘bad boys,’ not my straight-A son.”
Some important work of parenting is done when children are at their worst: It is easy to love and guide children when they are smiling and sitting quietly. It is much more difficult when they are throwing a tantrum or rolling their eyes or pounding on a sibling. Yet it is how a parent handles these times that defines and shapes a child’s character.
“When our daughter was 4, she was probably in three time-outs a day for talking back,” said John. “I thought we might be scarring her for life. But now that she’s in second grade, I see how some of her friends sass their parents, and I have to say, she’s done with that for the most part—she learned where our line was.”
The parent is the emotional thermostat: While much is made of children’s ability to bring joy into their parents’ lives, this is true only if the parents are open and receptive to the joy. Joy in family life is determined by the parents’ decision to meet their children where they are and experience delight with them.
“When my kids come home from school, I am tempted to keep working for another half hour,” Sharon says. “But instead I make a point of greeting them and hugging them. And it puts everyone in a good place.”
—by Annemarie Scobey from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2010 and 2011 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.
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