As I watch people protesting, I am thankful for the right to do this. I’m overwhelmed with a sense of relief thinking of nations where this would be illegal & even fatal – not because of a few rogue law enforcement officers, but because the entire legal system is in agreement that the people should not have a say. So, as I watch the people protest, I am thankful.
As I watch young men riot, I can’t help but ask, “where are their mothers?” I don’t ask this question in sharp judgment of their actions, but actually with sorrow. I am sorry they were done a disservice as a child in being led astray. Somewhere along the way they were either left to themselves, or actually taught, that this type response is justified. Whether they are lashing out from a sense of righteous indignation against the very real wrong that was committed, or they are satisfying a selfish agenda to take & break what isn’t theirs just… because. This is the epitome of lack of character: doing wrong because there is no one watching, or at least no one with the ability to influence them to do right. So, as I watch young men riot, I wonder where their mothers are.
Rioting is not the natural progression of protesting, despite what some people – mothers of young children, actually – have said (rather, written on social media.)
As I watch my son live his best two-year-old life here at home, in quarantine, with a brand new baby sister & lots of new emotions & thoughts, I see him protest. I also see him riot. I begin to see the comparison between what he is doing & what the adults on the news feed are doing. The similarities are that…
- they both (my toddler & the rioters) have a root cause for their anger. A good cause, actually.
- they both have a narrow world-view that causes them feel justified in their response to the cause of their anger.
- they both have a lack of impulse control. This overlaps with the more mature response of calculated revenge. Both are naturally occurring, but should be overridden in order to be good adults.
The differences between my toddler & the rioters are
- my toddler has an undeveloped prefrontal cortex. It is impossible to ask him for consistent & effective impulse control, reasoning or problem-solving – though this in no way should be a reason not to teach him these skills gently… how else will his prefrontal cortex develop properly?
- Exactly – it won’t! The higher level processing area of the brain won’t develop properly without being guided to right action & reasoning through anger-provoking situations. This is why the rioters are acting like my two year old. Their prefrontal cortexes were not exposed to mature, healthy responses to provocation in childhood, so they are operating with a deficient decision-maker. This is where I truly hurt for them because of this lost opportunity. This part wasn’t their fault.
- OR. They are too young to have a fully developed pre-frontal cortex at all (this area isn’t “closed” until around 25 years old, especially for boys). In that case, why aren’t they 1) at home. 2) at school. 3) at work. No one under 25 should have the time or energy to spend days destroying a city. Their parents should be requiring them (if under 18) to be partaking in something constructive. Otherwise they should be a responsible adult & find something productive to do.
- OR… Or they have a perfectly functioning judgment center & they are choosing to selfishly destroy what isn’t theirs. This is manipulative, calculated, & very much a higher-level thought process – it is a willfully wrong response. This is where I blame them.
As a mom, I am learning lessons about how to raise my children, especially my son. My son will biologically feel anger more physically & will be tempted to partake in aggression of some sort in response to passionate feelings, more so than his sister. It is our job – with the help of God who created his personality & has an ultimate plan for him – to teach, guide, correct, instruct, mold & develop his character & worldview so that he does not hurt others when he has been hurt.
This situation has affirmed many of our parenting practices & has brought up points that have challenged us to be more intentional. Here are a few things I’ve learned from watching the rioters.
- Teach them that it’s ok to protest, but it’s not ok to riot.
When my son is mad we affirm his anger: “It’s ok to be mad.” “Do you want to tell Mommy?” “That would make me mad, too!” etc. We do this because there is nothing wrong with being angry. Anger is biblical. Righteous Indignation is an anger against injustice. We should all strive to raise heroes who are righteously indignant against injustice. So when a child pushes my son, when a toy just doesn’t cooperate despite his careful work, when he is interrupted or ignored, we acknowledge the relative injustice & let him work through it.
But the initial feeling of anger is inevitably followed by a response. This is where my job transitions from sympathizing & affirming to guiding & instructing – we are all born with a sin nature that requires light to be shed & right paths to be revealed if we are ever going to freely choose to follow Christ. My son’s particular response to anger tends to be throwing whatever is in his hand, clearing whatever surface is before him, & even hitting whomever is closest to him. The anger in his little body materializes into some type of physical force. The last thing I want is for my son to grow into a man who feels justified in a physical response to his anger. A fear-based response would be to meet force with force & force him not to do this. But isn’t that asking a little much? We found this to be true. We have slowly learned not to fear his outbursts, but to confidently meet them head-on without panic. Our first goal is for him to know that nothing he does is surprising, or scary, or agitating to us. We can handle his anger, & therefore so can he.
When he responds by *throwing, hitting, spitting, etc.* we firmly tell him that he cannot * when he is mad, then quickly offer him an alternative. If you know us, you know we aren’t a coddling family. He knows by our look & tone that he has done wrong, & he knows we are stronger than him, fully capable of helping him to do right. Here are some examples of what we teach him to do
- “It’s ok to be mad, but you DO NOT hit Mommy when you are mad. Mommy loves you & helps you. If you’re mad, you can tell Mommy ‘I’m mad!’ & then Mommy will help you.” Help comes in the form of asking him more questions so he can verbally relieve his anger, tight squeezes, fixing the broken toy, etc.
- “It’s ok to be mad, but you DO NOT throw toys. You can find something to squeeze or Daddy can help you find something else to do so you don’t get in trouble.”
- “It’s ok to be mad, but you DO NOT bite. If you need to bite you can ask for your paci or bite your teether.”
- Sometimes our toddler is past all reason. He loses all control & inhibition & throws a tantrum that includes crying, kicking, screaming & thrashing around. One parent (just one, because we don’t want him to feel ganged up on) takes him to his room to preserve his dignity. We let him “get through the tunnel,” removing anything that he may throw or break, & still not allowing him to hit or kick us. We may say things like “You can cry on Mommy, but I will not let you hit me.” Or “Mommy will give you cuddles, but I will not let you kick me.” He may be prideful & unwilling to receive help, so I let him know I will sit with him until he needs my help. He ALWAYS crawls into my lap afterwards & I give him unrestrained cuddles with no judgment. He chose the right thing. If he cried & got his emotions out without a physical reaction like hitting, I tell him that he did a great job “getting his mad out” without hitting or kicking & that I am proud of him. We end every tantrum with “Mommy will always help you.” If the moment is right I will say things like “Mommy gets mad sometimes too. Do you know what I do?” If he is interested I tell him that I write it down, or pray, or tell Daddy, or cry, etc.
- Sometimes our toddler is completely within his senses & willfully chooses to continue throwing, kicking, etc. after he has been told not to & after we have given him options (which we all know he is familiar with.) This is when he is searching for a boundary, for a force that is stronger than him, for a wall to run into to force him to stop. Remember, he does not have impulse control. But he will still be held accountable. This is when we give him that firm boundary, that show of strength, that stable wall. As a parent you will know what that means for your individual child. The punishment is given with plenty of warning & explanation, he is required to confirm that he understands why he is being punished, then he is affirmed of our love for him after his punishment. This punishment can range from being sent to his room (punishment enough for our extroverted child), toys being taken, physical removal, etc.
We made a choice not to punish childish ignorance, though he is held accountable for every “wrong” action in proportion to what he should be able to control & understand. We also made a choice to directly punish willful disobedience quickly & efficiently, especially when it was a physical offense. At first, this decision to be very purposeful about his physical outbursts stemmed from the fact that he is a very large two-year old; many think he is three or even four years old. He is also a sensory-seeker, meaning that he plays by crashing, wrestling, jumping, etc. so we have to teach him physical boundaries along with not using his strength aggressively. Then there is the fact that he has a baby sister whom we do not want him to harm.
We also made a choice to be really intentional about how we addressed the issues of anger (& other issues) with him. Since we are Christians, we use biblical language in our everyday instruction & habit training. We decided to dive right in & teach concepts that may be above him, because who knows when he will begin understanding? Why not familiarize him with the ideas that shape our expectations now?
We use the terms Sin, Forgiveness & Obey all throughout our day.
If he is having trouble obeying, he understands that he can pray to Jesus to help him obey. Once after a tantrum he told me that “Sometimes… I pray to God… He helps me.” Another time he did NOT want to pray, but later came to me with a humbled spirit & said “I’m ready to pray to Jesus now.” His whole demeanor changed after a simple prayer for a humble heart & obedient spirit.
He can finish the familiar bedtime phrase “Mommy loves you, Daddy loves you &…” “Jesus loves me!”
He understands what he needs to do when I say “Do not let being mad make you sin.”
It is intriguing to put your hesitancies aside & discover what your toddler can actually grasp. We do not do say-it-after-me prayers or forced recitations. We use these words in our daily conversations & we pray out loud. I believe THIS is what will help my son to overcome his sin nature & choose a better way.
When I see the rage bubbling up in his sweet face & I hold my breath waiting to see what comes next, & then I hear him scream “Mommy, I’m MAD!!” & come to me for a hug, I know that he is learning to protest correctly.
When I see him being pushed down by a friend & his eyes ignite with righteous indignation, when I see him shake with anger & then burst out with “Please don’t push me!” before coming to me in tears for help, instead of pushing him back, just like we talked about, I know that he is truly learning to respond to the unfair world with assertion & not aggression.
When I see him break down in my arms & then pick himself up again, I see him learning to process anger in an healthy way & without repression.
I’ve shared the beautiful moments from the highlight reel of our character training. There are plenty of missed opportunities that we have had to repent over. And I know there will be plenty more. But the big picture is what stays in my mind, makes me almost thankful for each difficult toddler moment. Because, I remind myself, this is where grace abounds. This is where I get to do the important work of motherhood. This is where I get to lead by example. This is where I get to pour into the future men of our country, our world, our generation.
And I could not do it without God. Everything I teach my son goes against my own sin nature. God is teaching me to stop & listen. To sympathize. To be ok with progress & let go of expectations of perfection. To be patient & remember how much grace he has extended to me; how much more should I extend grace to my young child? I’ll end with this story of sanctification in my own life, maybe more so than my son’s.
We sat on the floor in the newly decorated nursery, my new daughter in my lap & my son sitting across from us. It was one of the first attempts at sharing a toy & Mommy’s attention with his 3 week old sister. It all became too much & I could see the emotions building up & I knew the switch between excitement & frustration would soon be flipped. As I attempted to get the hard, plastic toy from his hand to prevent an impending disaster, he snatched it back, then launched it forward. It hit my chest before ricocheting into my daughter’s head. She cried, then he cried, & I willed myself not to cry. I was angry. Angry that my son yet again failed to control himself. Angry that he caused pain to my new baby. Angry at the fear I felt that he would grow up to be an aggressive man. This anger pushed me toward a fear-driven reaction of force – forceful reprimand & forceful punishment. But before I could act, a still, small voice inside gently reminded me that this was one of those pivotal moments, a golden opportunity for teaching & leading. There was a spark of thankfulness amidst the fireworks of anger as I took a quick moment to pray for wisdom.
You are probably wondering what happened. Well, during the five seconds it took for me to think all of this, my son realized the gravity of his mistake. This was evident on his face; there was no need to tell him how wrong his action was. I calmly told him that he had hurt his sister (he began to cry harder as he watched her crying in pain) & that he needed to go to his room. He ran down the hall & threw himself on his bed in tearful remorse. I wasn’t calm enough to feel sorry for him yet, so I let him ruminate on this feeling on what I’ve heard referred to as “righteous sorrow.” This is needful for children & it should be our goal to lead them to feel righteously sorrowful by allowing them to see the consequences of their sin, instead of shaming them by telling them how bad they are. He tried to emerge, but I wasn’t ready to communicate with him like a mature adult yet, so I told him that what he did was very sad & that he needed to stay in his room for a little bit. I comforted my daughter (who was more scared than hurt) & then I heard my son’s door open, followed by pensive footsteps. My first instinct was to send him back to his room once again, but then I noticed the look on his face. Anguish & suffering called out to me from his eyes & I realized in that moment that he needed help reconciling this incident about which he was repentant.
There was no need to rehash how badly he had acted. I simply told him that throwing things when he is mad is a sin, & that sin makes his heart dark & sad. When he sins he needs to say sorry to the person he hurt, & to Jesus. “Do you want to say sorry now?” “Yes.” He repeated an apology to his sister & offered her a kiss on the head to complete the healing process. “Do you want to pray to Jesus to take the sin out of your heart & make it happy again?” “Yes.” And then he followed my lead in a simple apology to Jesus. His face cleared & I realized that I wasn’t as resilient as he was – I was still mad. Verses flooded my mind. Verses about His mercies being new each day & about how He separates our sin as far as the east is from the west & how He is faithful & just to forgive us. And then I forgave my son. I smiled at him & told him it was all over. I told him I loved him.
While my son still demonstrates the impulse control of a two-year-old, he has never thrown a toy at my face, or his sister’s head, again. We both learned an unforgettable lesson about the consequences of our actions, our ability to hurt or heal, apology & forgiveness.
While there are so many things out of my control as a mother, I can control the example I set & the expectations I create. My son will know the difference between protesting & rioting so that if he is ever faced with the freedom to do either, he will choose the better path.