I’m taking a couple of minutes to share a few short reflections on some parenting I observed last night that has really left an impression on me.
My husband and I were making dinner (he more than I, admittedly), and as had happened for most of the day, my two older boys started fighting over a particular train, again. It was Henry. He had been missing around the house for a few weeks, but showed up in a basket of animals the other afternoon, and since then, he's been in high demand. On that old chestnut of “Sharing,” we're still trying to work through things.
So the screaming started. And the screaming has been pretty frequent lately, and it's an annoying kind of angry elementary school girl scream that kind of curls your toes and leaves an after-ring in your ears. Not cool.
My husband ran into the living room. I kept working in the kitchen, and listened to what was transpiring in the next room.
My secondborn was distraught that his older brother had the train. #2 was angry and wanted everyone in this part of the state to hear about it. My eldest was not interested in giving up the train; after all, his brother had managed to scream his way into playing with it for most of the last 48 hours. Why shouldn't he have a turn? Now seemed as good a time as any. Yes, he certainly wanted a turn with Henry, and wasn't about to let his little brother get his way by screaming, again. I could feel the tension building all the way around the corner, and I wondered what would happen when their father stepped in.
What are the options here, really? Let it work itself out? Surely, all children have to learn how to manage their differences at one time or another, right? Except that we don't want them hurting one another, and we want to help them recognize the needs and feelings of one another in the process, and young children, full of love as they are, are also developing a keen sense of self, and sometimes that overshadows their empathy. It's an ego they can't help, really, and respectful, nurturing intervention helps them see the position of their friend/brother/competitor-for-toys. The passive let-it-work-itself-out tactic didn't seem called for in this situation.
So should my husband do the swooping-in-parenting move? Take the train away from my firstborn and give it to his younger brother? Well, we don't really know how it all started, since we were in the kitchen to begin with. Maybe #2 had the train and #1 swiped it. Or maybe #1 was playing with it and #2 remembered that he's kind of had a thing for the train lately, and thought this was a good time to rekindle that most intimate relationship of a train and its lover. Or should we just take the train away from both of them, cause we're the parents, and we're entitled to do whatever we want to do? (Though admittedly, if we really just wanted the crying to stop, this was only going to product the opposite result: two screaming kids.) Would Daddy just walk in and do something authoritative to solve the problem?
But my husband did something totally different than either of these two options. He walked into the living room, saw the situation, and with a sense of (almost) excitement in his voice, asked, "Hey, why don't you let Daddy play with Henry? Can I play with you guys?" The boys couldn't have been more thrilled with that arrangement, and gladly surrendered their train to Daddy, who showed real enthusiasm in playing together with them around the train table for a few minutes, while their feelings of competition quelled and they remembered how much fun it was just to play together.
This decision reminded me of what writer and theologian Walter Wink calls “The Third Way,” as a means of breaking cycles of violence without resorting to passive resignation— finding a way to turn the conflict on its head with creative love.
I think that what my husband did was brilliant. It didn't make a decision about the conflict, choosing one child over the other, or sweeping authoritarianism in place of throw-up-your-hands passivity. Instead, it found a playful response that reminded the boys of the point of their trains- to enjoy them together. It creatively infused my husband’s love and his participation into the situation, and his engagement with them was the answer to the whole problem. Rather than be “right” or get to play with the trains themselves, my boys were happiest with getting to have their daddy involved in what they were doing.
So much of child-led living revolves around this idea- not of being passive as parents, just permissively letting our kids walk all over us. And not parenting with the "Because I say so" or "Because I'm the Parent" argument. Child-led living is treating our kids and each other as autonomous people, worthy of respect and open-minded compassion. Of being engaged, interested, and involved in what they are doing and thinking, rather than just observing and judging or controlling it from the sidelines. Yes, it involves a lot more time than other conventional forms of parenting, what sometimes feels like infinite amounts of energy, patience, and creativity, but it's the kind of love that I believe we are called to demonstrate to the world, starting with our own children. It's treating one another as human beings and working as peacemakers in our own homes.
Thanks to my husband, for reminding me of how creative love is really the best answer.