When I was a young mom, I think I judged most of my young children’s behaviors and attitudes that were less than the standard as forms of disobedience. I had set an expectation and trained my children to respond, “Yes, Mom” to my directives and move to completely accomplish the task, mostly with a happy heart. Through those years I learned that my perfection could hinder a loving relationship. Finding the balance between that loving relationship and virtuous character required the discernment given by the Holy Spirit. I grew to understand that I would need to articulate the standard and maybe repeat it many times before it would take root in my child’s heart. Another insight learned along the way was that the behavior, skill, and character I was shaping would be more likely to grow in the context of a loving, patient, trusting relationship. I had so much to learn as a parent.
Today as I watch the growth and development of my grandchildren, I’m thinking, “What if the behavior that we label as disobedience is really a sign of a morally immature child?” If I think this way, I will respond differently. Rather than focusing on the disobedience, I’ll realize that the immature child needs training and practice. I’ll separate behavior from the attitude in a young three-year-old and focus on the behavior, all the time knowing that within the year the attitude training will need to be addressed. But to focus on behavior and attitude at the same time will confuse the young child’s attempt to obey and miss recognizing the battle in his flesh. He knows he needs to obey, but his flesh is weak.
Recently, this played out in front of my eyes and I realized that I had grown in wisdom from the years of my own choleric, strong-willed child. Our three-year-old grandson was spending the day with us. His strong-willed temperament is challenging his parents. They’ve done a very good job at training him to respond to his name with a “Yes, Mommy/Daddy/Gramma.” That doesn’t mean the “NO! I don’t want to” has been conquered. On this particular day, Peter was ready to carry all his dishes from the table to the counter after lunch. From my perspective it looked like they would most likely topple to the floor in the process, so I directed him to take one thing at a time to the counter. He stamped his foot and said, “NO!” he would take them all at once. Calmly, I called his name and waited. Because of all the practice and affirmation his parents had done with training, he looked at me and responded quietly, “Yes, Gramma.” I then calmly repeated my directive to take one thing at a time to the counter by the sink. He took his cup by the handle and as he walked by the first chair, he slammed the cup on the floor and repeated, “No!” I was surprised with his response. With my own child 20 years ago, I would have probably reacted to the bad attitude and missed what followed. I didn’t react, but actually looked away. What happened next surprised me again. He finished taking his cup to the counter, and returned to get the next thing. Before I could say he could take 2 things this time, he calmly, and with more self-control, took his fork to the counter and returned to get his plate, each time making the trip to the counter without the expression of defiance I had witnessed the first time. I was dealing with a young three-year-old. In this context, I needed to focus on the behavior and separate it from the attitude. It’s not that the attitude was acceptable, but had I expected both behavior and attitude to meet the standard, I would have missed the victory he had over his passion to do it his way. I would have missed the compliance with my directive on a behavioral level, one step on the way to my goal. It’s unlikely that his 5-year-old brother would have responded in such a challenging way, but had he told me, “No” I would have needed to address the attitude. That’s the difference of maturity.
If your child’s behavior is really a sign of his immaturity more than his disobedience, how should you respond differently?