When I was in fifth grade I won the Big Mouth award in my church youth group. My parents weren’t surprised. I come from a long line of hecklers and peanut gallery members. So I’m not shocked when I hear my habits reflected in the retorts of my boys like, “I’m going to throw you in the dungeon,” or “I hope the hot lava gets you,” when I make them do things they don’t like. And while I’ve never threatened them with incarceration or volcanic ash, I hear the frustration and fury in their voices and it sounds oddly familiar, like something out of my own mouth.
My lifelong struggle with shutting my mouth is one of my biggest barriers to compassionate parenting. Several weeks ago, my three-year-old son Liam refused to pedal his bicycle to gymnastics. It was nap time on a day that he should have slept, but I let him watch TV instead. If he had napped, he wouldn’t have woken up for his class. Instead, I had the bright idea to ride our bikes the mile there and back, a distance he had ridden several times. This trip, however, was full of excuses. “My legs won’t work. The pedal is broken. I can’t do it. My feet are falling off. I want my penguin blankey!” he wailed. We were ten minutes into our trip and had gone about twenty feet.
As my frustration built, what came out of my mouth were not words of compassion or encouragement for a tired little boy, but the biting words of stinging rejection, “Suck it up and ride. You’re not even trying. Stop being a stupid baby and pedal your darn bike. If you can’t manage that, we’ll just leave you here!” And I pedaled far enough ahead of him to reduce him to sobs.
Looking over my shoulder, I saw Liam get onto his bike quivering, and follow his five-year-old brother Skyler down the sidewalk. Later he would say, “I did it, Mommy. I rode my bike.” And while I congratulated and hugged him, I felt nasty and cold. By throwing my own fit, I effectively communicated that Liam would only receive love when he performed.
My behavior was just a bigger, uglier rendition of his temper tantrum. It’s humiliating. I’m so disgusted by the destructive dribble flooding out of my mouth that sometimes I want to crawl out of my own skin. I think of Liam, crushed and tired, and like Peter, realizing he betrayed Christ, I want to hide and weep.
When my kids are obnoxious, I rationalize my reaction by claiming fatigue, provocation or, well, PMS. But, Ephesians 4:20 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” My flippant remarks send the opposite message to my kids. Even in my easily, irritated exhaustion, I need to pause. I need God to step into that moment between thought and reaction, to temper my words. To remind me that not only am I his beloved creation, but Liam is too and if I am not controlling my tongue, any other aspects of my life that exemplify Christ are worthless.
I had an opportunity to practice this recently. We were late for a birthday party and I was scrambling to find some wrapping paper, or at least a paper bag, when both boys disappeared upstairs. They were silent for so long that I asked them what they were doing. More silence. Then Liam said, “Hey Mommy, did you know if you throw a waffle at the fan it explodes and flies all over the room?”
Yes, the waffles had syrup on them. And yes, there were several pieces stuck onto the walls and the wet carpet of the freshly steamed study floor. But, I remember throwing cereal boxes at the fan in the staff lounge as a camp counselor. So I laughed. And I’m so glad because later that day, when Liam and I were cooking, an activity he loves, he turned to me and said, “Mommy, I just like you so much.” I hugged him and said, “Oh, Liam, I love you too!”
God, if I can’t keep my mouth shut, then fill it with your words of love and compassion.