My past couple weeks have been filled by potty-training my two-year-old, who turns three in a couple months. As other parents who’ve gone through this know, it’s one of those things that will fail if you try to control it. The child must be ready and be given the opportunity to exercise authority over himself. The parents’ jobs are to provide support and guidance, make it fun and stay positive. Which isn’t easy to do, especially after multiple accidents! My little Toad ignores me or shuts down the moment I get stern or serious with him, so he’s teaching me the value of a light, bright, good-natured approach to life.
Earlier this year I took a Parent Personality Assessment and found that I scored high in the attitudes of Controlling and Superiority, and low in Pleasing and Comforting. I want things done my way, and when my expectations aren’t met, I tend to correct and lecture others. This invites power struggles with my children, and as soon as you’ve entered one of those, nobody wins! Simply becoming aware of my natural inclinations as a parent has helped me make better choices in the moment.
My four-year-old son, Buddy, is very strong-willed. A few weeks ago, when my husband was out of town, both my sons were being noisy in church, so I took them out. I held them tightly on my lap, but Buddy just kept screaming. I covered his mouth with my hand, so he started to kick me. I grabbed his legs with my other arm, so he started bucking his head back. This made it very uncomfortable and difficult with a protruding pregnant belly and another child to the side of me! My hand on his mouth wasn’t muffling very much of his noise, and I must have looked pretty ridiculous trying to wrangle that kid with my skirt and heels on.
That’s when a sweet friend left the meeting to come to the rescue. She knelt down on his level, talked to him soothingly, and asked him if he’d like to see if there were any treats in her bag. Buddy composed himself immediately. Then she took him by the hand, led him back in to the congregation, and let him pick some candies for himself and his siblings before sending him back to me. She was a great example of gentleness and kindness, and her way ended up being much more effective than mine!
I see a lot of my parenting attitudes in this story, recounted by M. Russell Ballard:
Please remember the experience of a friend of mine. He had never owned a horse in his life until he married a wonderful woman who loves horses. Wanting to impress his new bride, he announced one evening that he was going to the pasture to teach a colt how to be led. He weighed more than the colt. He knew more than the colt. He assumed all he would need to do was pull on the lead rope and sooner or later the colt would follow. He was confident that the process would be short and simple.
He attached the lead rope to the halter, got in front of the colt, and pulled. The colt resisted. My friend pulled harder, and the colt planted his legs more firmly. So he really pulled, and the colt fell over. The process was repeated several times until my friend made this assessment: in just four or five minutes he had successfully taught the colt to fall over. All he had to do was get in front of the colt, pick up the rope, and over it would go.
His wife, watching this process, finally suggested that instead of getting in front of the colt and pulling, he might try wrapping the rope around the colt and simply walking alongside. To my friend’s chagrin, it worked.
There seems to be something inside each of us that resists being told or pushed or pulled. But if someone puts an arm around [us] and walks alongside [us], [we are] likely to follow.
Like little horses, children want to be led and guided, but not pulled nor forced. This is true not just of children, but of all people. I’m sure we’ve all felt the resistance and resentment that builds up when others try to control us, as well as the eagerness we feel to follow a leader whom we know loves us, listens to us, and cares about us. Joseph Smith expressed this beautifully when he said,
Nothing is so much calculated to lead people…as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power is has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind.
As we lead children in love and gentleness, we will be able to see them for who they really are as magnificent spirits, and we’ll be more receptive to the many lessons they have to teach us. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made, and that I keep making, is seeing my children as “just children” rather than the glorious spiritual beings, my equals, that they truly are. Though these spirits are housed in small, unskilled bodies, they have a light about them and an ability to love unconditionally that most adults have forgotten. As I change my perspective from seeing myself as “in charge” of them, to seeing them as my own exalted spiritual teachers, I grow in amazing ways and enjoy happy, flourishing relationships with them.