Before we became parents, actually before we were even married, my husband and I used to be a little judgmental in the parenting department. At stores or restaurants we would observe a little person acting out, yelling, talking back, or just making a terriby loud and disturbing scene. One of us would ask the other, speaking of the child’s outburst, “You know what that sound is?” The other would coyly respond, “Bad parenting!” And then we would chuckle a little and smile at each other knowing that we would never let our own child get so out of hand in public. I mean sure, our kids wouldn’t be PERFECT, but they certainly wouldn’t do FILL IN THE BLANK. You get the idea, right?
And really, we continued with this silly little ritual, if you can call it that, even after our first child was born. For the most part our first child, our daughter, is very compliant and obedient. That’s because of our stellar parenting, right? My answer when we only had one child would have been, well, of course it’s because of our parenting!
Fast forward to today and my life with three kids and I will probably have a different answer for you. Let’s talk about all that can happen during one hour of Mass on Sunday. Oh wait, let’s just talk about all that DID happen in one hour of Mass last week. It all started just fine. Our 9 month old was strapped to me in a baby carrier, our middle child was hanging out by my hubby and our eldest, my daughter, was behaving very well as so many first-borns do.
Then, out of nowhere, the 2 ½ year old started punching my husband. He faked my hubby out. After reaching out for a hug he quickly shifted gears and attacked his unsuspecting father. So, while still carrying the baby, I dragged the little trouble making toddler to the narthex. It wasn’t too long before he was making a mad dash for the baptismal font. I was weighed down by my baby and not moving as quickly. Luckily there were some kind parishioners in the back of the church who helped me catch the little man before he dove into the holy water.
Now that I have what could be best described as a complicated child, I think differently about taking ownership of how my children behave. If I take credit for my daughter’s stellar behavior then I must also take the blame for my son’s shenanigans, right? Well, what I’m learning from having a challenging child is that, perhaps, it’s not that simple. We can do our best and our kids may still act out. We can do our worst and our kids may be little super stars. There is not always a positive correlation.
Yesterday marked the Jubilee Year of Mercy, instituted by Pope Francis. These people who helped me prevent my little guy from drenching himself in the baptismal font were showing some mercy. That “pre-kid” Courtney who looked down upon the parents of misbehaving kids, well, she was not so merciful.
Mercy. Compassion. The world needs it.
What I have learned from parenting a challenging toddler is that there is so much that happens at home that the general public does not see. When you see a parent struggling with a child in public, you really may have no idea what is really going on. You may not know the struggles that that child is going through. And if the child is struggling, the parent struggles too. For example, my little guy was so frustrated today that he slapped me in the face. Hard. Really Hard. So hard that I cried.
You could say that my little toddler “happily struggles”. Most people who know him would say that he is always smiling and therefore must be happy. But that smile is misleading. He’s frustrated because he struggles with communication. He wants to play with other kids his age but his lack of communication prevents him from really joining in on the fun. He will approach a child and then soon figure out that he just doesn’t know how to play the way that they play. So, he withdraws from the situation and just plays with cars all by himself. It’s heartbreaking to watch.
So, this past Sunday, before he made a dash for the baptismal font, he was running around with another toddler around his age. Should he have been running around in the narthex? It probably wasn’t totally appropriate. But to see him so happy and engaging with another child was just too heartwarming for me to put an end to the fun. I’m thankful that the mommy of that toddler let her little one just be silly and goofy with my little guy after I told her about the social struggles that we were going through. That was mercy.
My little toddler’s name means “Gift of God”. And, truly, the gift that has come from being the mother of my frustrated but sweet and misunderstood little son has been an increase in my capacity for mercy. Now when I hear the sound of what I previously called “bad parenting”, I offer help to the struggling mother. Or, if my hands are already filled with my own three kids, I will, at the very least, make eye contact with the frustrated parent, smile and offer some sort of words of encouragement.
There are so many ways to show mercy and usually they are just simple acts of kindness. How are you showing mercy towards others?