Your requests for more details were well timed, since I had to kick into "inhabit the authority" mode twice yesterday. It was a crazy evening, CRA to the zth power, and we needed to have done a little more planning yesterday morning. (You know the parts in the Aubrey-Maturin books where they re-enact Trafalgar with biscuit crumbs? My husband and I joke about doing something similar to plan movements of cars and drivers. Last night we wound up a few ships short of a fleet.)
I was at the gym and I needed to get Stella (a NOPE girl) into the car immediately. She's often dawdly when it's time to leave the childcare room, and I did not have time for dawdly. I said, "Stella, look at my eyes. We need to go right now or we will be late." And she came. She cried for a minute in the car because she hadn't finished her picture and she wasn't sure we had the right blue at home to match the section she'd been working on, but she did not give me a single second of pushback -- she got right up, walked willingly to the car, and fastened her own seatbelt even though she was sad.
There were a few important things hidden in the interaction. I called her name with a falling intonation: this is not a question but an declaration. My tone of voice was deliberate; it said, "This is important. Not panic-inducing, but important." When I say "look at my eyes," it means "you have my full attention, and I need yours." (<-That right there is one of the Golden Keys of parenting with authority. In those moments I was lamenting at the beginning of yesterday's post, I was busy chatting. Inattention fuels limit-testing.) I pulled out a couple of big-gun phrases: I try not to say "right now" unless I really mean "right now," and "we will be late" comes with an unspoken "and that's serious." Both of those nuances, for what it's worth, have taken a long time to cultivate.
Some broader context: I am a huge, HUGE fan of giving my kids autonomy and modeling flexibility. Stella usually needs a minute to wrap things up in the childcare room. Sometimes I will offer the option of popping back in a little bit later. (We're usually waiting for her brother to finish his karate class, so it's no big deal to me if she hangs out with me or with the other kids.) Sometimes I will say, "Go ahead, watch the end of this scene" or "Finish using that color -- I'm not in a rush." I believe that my usual willingness to give her time contributes to her reciprocal willingness to listen and obey on the rare occasions when I say "right now, even though you don't want to."
When we got home, my NOPE teen had made plans to meet his girlfriend at 7 (and OH does he hate to be late) but I needed him to run me to church. "No," he said, "that's not going to work." I said, calmly, "There's a room full of people waiting for me. I know you're disappointed, but I have to get to church on time." He paused. Politely, he said, "Okay. Let me send a message to M."
There were three important things in that interaction: first, calm is critical. The authority I invoke if I get het up is not motherly authority; it is the dubious authority of the impending explosion. It invites a NOPE kid to explode right back, because in that scenario the bigger explosion can carry the day. Second, and this might be the single most important thing I know about mothering, compassion makes everything better. Letting a kid know that you hear and respect his feelings, even in a moment when you can't do anything to make them better, allows him to move past them instead of clinging to them. This was life-changing for me as a young mother, to learn that I shouldn't try to argue my toddler out of his feelings. Instead I could say kindly, "You really wish we could stay at the library. [slipping his arm into his jacket sleeve] What would you do if we stayed? [other arm] Maybe if we stayed we could build with the wooden blocks. [zipping up the jacket] Wooden blocks are super-fun, [taking his hand] and they have so many of them here. [heading for the elevator] I know it's a bummer to go. Would you like to push the button to call the elevator?" It was magic. And decency, all rolled into one. (On that topic, be sure to read Carol's lovely comment from yesterday. Carol is my dear friend and mothering mentor, the person whose prayers I request when I am feeling really stuck and uncertain.)
This thought really belongs in the previous paragraph, but it's a long paragraph already. (This is a long post already, and I have so much more to say!) The third important thing in my interaction with my son last night was that pause. Everybody -- everybody -- makes better choices and makes them less resentfully given a little time to own the decision. I did not leap in and say NO, RIGHT NOW, and I feel certain that contributed to the peaceful outcome. I got to church on time (although further scheduling FAIL moments meant that Stella wound up coming to the ladies' retreat team meeting a little bit later), and when I apologized afterward to my son for the interruption to his evening he said, "Nah, it's all good."
I keep thinking about Our Lord with the rich young ruler. He asked something huge of the man, something crazy, as he "looked at him and loved him." He gave the man space to choose freely. We also ask something huge, something crazy, of our children. In effect we say to our newborns, "I know you can't hold your own head up, but your task is to live independently in a fallen world and make it a better place. Ready?" So, too, we must look at them and love them, seeing how genuinely hard it is for them to learn to do what's right again and again. We know that sometimes they will choose the wrong thing. We know that free will is one of the greatest gifts of genuine love.
Last night as my daughter was drifting off next to me she said sleepily, "I love God. And you remind me of Him." Although my knee-jerk response was to think, "Oh, honey, I am SO not God," I am trying instead to be grateful for her words. I am thinking about all the freedom God affords me to serve him in ways that bring me joy. I am thinking about how uncommon it is for God to compel immediate obedience, and about how much I want to do the right thing in those moments.
I am thinking that's the kind of mom I want to be.
OH MY GOODNESS, nobody reads 1200-word blog posts in 2015. For Miriel and Rachel in particular I have some thoughts on the links between parenting authority and professorial authority. I have some more thoughts on the contexts that facilitate mothering with authority. But I will pause here for today. Tune in tomorrow...