What rules should parents follow? In no apparent order . . .
1. Be the first to apologize. Make no excuse when you’re been irritable and angry, even though you could summon 1,312 reasons why they’ve deserved the gale force of your fury. Get on your knees, look your child in the eye and name specifically what you did and why it was wrong. Say you’re sorry, and ask for forgiveness. The terrific news is, it will be granted to you easily. Children are merciful.
2. Touch your children as often as you can, even your nine-year-old son who makes loud and wild protestations that you’re being “gross.” Daniel Keltner, the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, says, “in recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.” Create a silly vocabulary for touch in your home, words like “snuggle” and “smooch,” and when you stand in the line at Costco, serenade your four-year-old with, “Who wants to smooch me?” in place of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” He might pump his arm in the air and answer, “Ooo, ooo, ooo!” You will get a wet, sloppy kiss.
3. Put your phone down. Listen to your children when they talk, really listen, finding their eyes and refusing to give your blinking, beeping phone the attention it clamors for. The next time you take them to a park, leave your phone in the stroller or your purse, and despite your inclinations to quickly check email, answer a text, or google the restaurant you remember you’ve wanted to check out, push someone in the swing instead. When they call, “Mommy, watch!” and perform an acrobatic feat of expert skill, applaud and cheer, “YAY for Andrew!” This may also be an appropriate time to sing your version of, “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
4. Eat at the table with the television off. For as many meals as you can throughout the week, gather your family, and eat at the kitchen or dining room table. Use the opportunity to find out about their day (“What was your high today? What was your low?). Nourish yourself on good food and great stories. Tell them a story that relates to an experience they’ve recently had. Or tell them a story from your day that will humanize you and allow them to see you as someone who feels. Whatever you do, find a way for conversation to become a habit of your home.
5. Institute a benevolent monarchy in your home, resisting your children’s coups to make it a democracy. Assume the role of queen (king), and don’t poll your children about every decision that must be made. You will then be forced to negotiate between each child’s preferences and will find yourself feeling apologetic whenever anyone doesn’t like what you’ve chosen. Children have been given a command by God: Obey your parents. As a reminder, tell them that obedience isn’t only for situations where they understand, agree, or feel like it.
6. Preach the gospel. Every chance you get, use the vocabulary of sin and grace to point them to Jesus. Show them when they’ve sinned and why, according to God’s standards, what they’ve done is wrong. Remind them that Jesus died to forgive all of our sin and to make us the kind of people who love what is good. Your four-year-old will pray the sweetest prayers like, “Dear Jesus, forgive me that I wanted to do bad.”
7. Resist the permissiveness of the culture. When you’re at the salon and overhear a mother talking about her fifteen-year-old staying out till 1 a.m. with his friends, (a reasonable curfew, she tells her colorist), relaying that at 3 a.m., when she woke and checked his room for evidence that he was home (“He and his friends usually take pillows and blankets to the basement”), she found everything perfectly neat. “I worried, woke my husband, texted my son scores of times without any answer. Finally, we went to the basement to be sure they weren’t actually already home. And they were.” 1 a.m.? No one’s waiting up to see if Johnny is wasted when he walks through the front door? Oh, and did I forget to mention how said mother has been bugging her husband to finally get their son’s computer password and phone log? (“I think we should know what’s he’s doing, don’t you?”)
8. Pray. As often, as specifically, as regularly as you can. Re-read #7.