Hebrews 12: 11 (ESV): “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
A couple days ago I received a text message from my wife saying, “Our little boy is fighting coming down the stairs!” Immediately I thought to myself, “Oh no! It’s happening!”
You see, we went through this same thing with our older boy. He was fully capable of climbing up and down the stairs (with us right there supervising of course) and he fully understood what, “Time to go upstairs” meant. Yet one fateful day he decided that he didn’t want to climb the stairs by himself. Instead he was going to insist that we carry him. My wife was 8 months pregnant with our second son, and we knew, with a little baby soon to arrive, that carrying him up and down the stairs just wasn’t always going to be an option. He was just going to have to “Man up” and go up the stairs without us carrying him (yes, I realize I just said my 13 month old needed to Man up).
And so the battle began.
After nearly a solid hour of crying, time-outs, more crying, angry looks and stern voices followed by more crying; he finally, begrudgingly, shuffled himself up the stairs. Victory for Daddy! While he still wasn’t perfect from that point forward, since that one act of rebellion he really hasn’t given us too hard of time about it. The battle was difficult and stressful, but so worth it.
It wasn’t about breaking his will. It was about teaching him not only to listen to us, but to trust that we really are doing what is best. He didn’t understand that in a few short weeks that there would be a little baby and that we would need to carry the baby up and down the stairs instead of him, but that’s okay, he doesn’t need to understand that. He just needs to trust that when we ask him to do something that it’s for a good reason. While at the time it may seem like a battle of wills, it’s really us as parents teaching him that what we are asking him to do is important enough for us to be unwavering in our resolve to have him do it. Not only did he learn that lesson on the stairs, but it has translated to other areas as well. He comes to us when we call him, he eats the food we give him to eat, he takes a nap when we tell him, and he goes to bed when we tell him. He of course still has his moments of defiance, just like any child, but they are fairly few and far between because he learned the ultimate lesson: that Mommy and Daddy can be trusted.
Now here we are, only a year and half later and his little brother is doing the exact same thing; with my wife 6 months pregnant with baby number 3; talk about Déjà vu! My stellar victory over his older brother a year and half earlier gave me confidence that this too would be difficult, but worth it. Of course I underestimated how much more stubborn this boy is compared to his older brother.
While we always stick to our guns, and ultimately get him to climb up or down the stairs (even if we have to move his little arms and legs ourselves to make him do it); somehow the victory doesn’t seem as sweet as it was the first time around. After three episodes this last week alone it is clear that this boy’s will is definitely stronger.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder, is it really worth the battle? I mean, we could spend thirty minutes trying to get him to drag himself up the stairs, or we could just say, “screw it,” pick him up and be done with it in thirty seconds. I’ve heard other parents not wanting to stand up to their kid’s rebelliousness saying, “It’s just not worth the fight!” I sympathize with that sentiment and can’t help but wonder, is this particular fight really worth it?
If it’s just about the stairs; no it’s definitely not worth it, at least not right now. When we have another little baby in the house, and I’m home with the kids by myself and I need to get my little monkeys up the stairs it will probably seem more worth it. It’ll be worth it when I don’t have to try and he-man two toddlers and a baby into my arms all at once (I’m not even sure if that’s physically possible without seriously injuring one of them). But right now; whether we carry him up the stairs or he climbs up himself doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.
The more I think about it though; it is so much more than just stairs. It’s about rebelliousness. In that moment my precious little boy isn’t just saying, “I want you to carry me!” He’s saying, “I don’t want to listen to you, I want you to listen to me!” It’s not just stairs; it’s setting a precedent for who’s in charge in this parent-child relationship. Sure, it’s important that he be allowed to make some decisions for himself, that’s part of what helps him learn, but they need to be decisions that he is capable of making. We let him decide if he’d rather watch “Mickey Mouse” or “Little Einsteins”, we let him decide if he wants to color or play with play-doh. But a two year old can’t be trusted to pick their own diet, that’s how you end up with a kid that eats nothing but fruit loops and cheerios. An 18 month old can’t be trusted to decide when they need a nap, that’s how you end up with a child that’s always cranky and always fights going to sleep. Sure as he gets older we’ll give him bigger and bigger decisions and more freedom. But when he is this little, we need to have a lot more control for his own good. A little child isn’t capable is discerning what is best for him because “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15). When rebellion rears its ugly head over the stair case, either we pick him up, and he has established himself as being the key decision maker, or we hold strong and let him know that Mommy and Daddy are the ones calling the shots. It’s a battle, and it’s not fun, but it’s a battle that must be won.
We must stand our ground now because the stakes will not always be so small. It’s not really about stairs, or the dinner he doesn’t want to eat, or the toy that he just stole from his brother. It’s about letting him know that Mommy and Daddy are to be respected and listened to, no matter what it is we want him to do. Some day we may need him to listen to us about something that is far more important.
I’m not really worried about stairs at age 18 months. I’m more concerned about the future. I’m worried about when he’s five and he starts to run into the street and his life depends on him immediately listening to me telling him to stop. I’m worried about when he is fifteen teaching him to drive, and both our lives hinge on him listening to me telling him to slow down. I’m worried about when he is seventeen being tempted to go too far with his girlfriend and his future marriage depends on him taking my words about the sanctity of sex and marriage seriously. I’m worried about when he is 21 and he is considering driving back to his apartment after having 5 drinks and his future depends on him heeding what I’ve taught him about responsibility. I’m worried about when he stands before God’s judgement throne at the end of his life, and the eternal salvation of his soul depends on how well he followed my teaching of the Gospel. I have to heed the words of God who says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”(Proverbs 22:6)
But to train him the way he should go, he must first listen. Think about it, if we don’t expect him to listen to us when we tell him to climb the stairs; we have just given him the message that what we tell him to do is not important. Why should he take our words seriously, whether about stairs or anything else, if we won’t take them seriously ourselves?
This may be extremely difficult, especially with strong-willed children, but the strong-willed child is the one who needs it the most. He is the one who most likely to rebel, most likely to defy, and most likely to stray.
This is where you might say I’m just being overly dramatic; way to make a mountain out of a mole hill, right? Maybe the consequences aren’t quite as dire as I make them out to be, but at what point does saying that the “battle isn’t worth it”, become a pattern of the “battle is never worth it”? At what point do a few isolated moments of “it’s just not worth it” become a lifestyle of your child never being held accountable? Somewhere in there is a point where “it’s just not worth it” becomes, “absolutely critical” and seeing where that point is can be very difficult. For me personally, I’d rather err on the conservative side, the consequences of me being wrong are a lot less disastrous.
This is also where you might accuse me of having no right to dish out parenting advice. After all, I’ve only been a parent for two and half years and haven’t had to deal with the dreaded “teenage” years. You could say that every child is different and I don’t know anything about your child. You could say that my methods wouldn’t work on them. And you might be totally right. Take my words with the proverbial grain of salt that is intended. I realize there is no “one size fits all” parenting technique, and some things work better for some kids than others. You don’t have to answer to me for your parenting decisions, but at least be honest with yourself. If you don’t fight the battle is it really because you think it’s not important, or because it just seems too difficult?
I can’t guarantee that my discipline philosophy with my children will lead them to being well adjusted, God fearing, productive members of society. I don’t think anyone can guarantee that no matter what their philosophy. For any given way of parenting you could probably find scores of examples of children who turned out great others who didn’t. I get that. But all I can do is make what seems to be the best decision for my children here and now where I am. I can’t guarantee that holding strong over something as benign as climbing up the stairs will help my children to grow up awesome. But I do know that if I don’t expect them to listen to me over the little things, I don’t have a leg to stand on over the big things. And from where I’m sitting right now saying, “The battle just isn’t worth it,” sounds too much like, “My child just isn’t worth it!” My child is worth every bit of it, and then some.