A Year-long Challenge to Become a Gentler Mother

Most of us are quick to publicly pat ourselves on the back. Perhaps it’s through the form of a photo uploaded to Instagram of our perfectly groomed child smiling sweetly at the camera, a post on Facebook proclaiming to the world about our 3 year-old genius’s latest accomplishment or a pin on Pinterest displaying the fruits of our creative endeavors. However, it is not often that you find someone publicly post something that is both humiliating and shameful. Today is your lucky day.

I hesitated to share this experience because it showcases my weakness and is a little embarrassing; however, I do share because the experience was real. And it caused me to feel real sorrow. And it compelled me to make real change. The month was May and the year was 2013…

My twins arrived home from their last day of kindergarten. Tossing their backpacks to the floor, they hurried off to the playroom for a serious game of pretend. The last thing I wanted to do was reach into their bags to sort through the heap of papers that had piled up in their classroom mailboxes over the year and which had now found their way home to clutter my own shelves. Although tempted to hide the bags in the closet until August, I instead decided to get the sorting over with. I pulled out a stack of homemade “books” from Jordan’s backpack and started a pile for “trash” and one for “keepsake”. I collected a half-dozen adorable hand-written stories before I came across the book entitled “I Love Kokes” (translation: I Love Cookies):

Page 1 & 2:

photo 1

“I got off the bus. I saw my mom’s cookies sitting on the counter.”

photo 2

“I started to take them off the counter.”

I chuckled a little. “That’s cute,” I thought.

Page 3:

photo 3

“When my mom got home and she got mad.”

My heart sank. Just look at me in this drawing! I’m a monster!

The story continues: “I got sad. I ran up to my room. I got up to my room. My bed was soaked (with his tears).

How heartbreaking is that?! I asked Jordan if this was a true-what-happened story (my boys’ term for “non-fiction”). “Did this really happen?” I asked. “No, I just made it up,” he replied. Still, I knew that this young author’s story was based, at least in part, in truth.

I really beat myself up over this. I moped about it for days. I knew I was a good mommy. I also used to think I was a kind, gentle mommy, but apparently my little boy sees me as a generally nice lady who harbors a scary monster beneath her otherwise gentle, playful facade (tread carefully – like the hulk, even the smallest of offenses could be enough to set her off!).

I believe in being a gentle mother, but I also believe that while being gentle, a mother can still be strict and expect appropriate behavior from her children. It’s a fine line and everyone has their own parenting style. I do not put up with whining, arguing and generally inappropriate behavior. I love the kind of mother that I am, but after reading Jordan’s story, I decided that maybe I need to take my tone of voice down a notch so that I’m always sending a message of love to my children. I can still effectively discipline and enforce good behavior in my kids without yelling at them. Thus began my year-long challenge to become a gentler mother. It seemed that I learned something new almost every month. This is how I grew over the last year…

1. I Prayed     I started with prayer. I know that God wants us to succeed. I believe that the areas of life in which He wants us to have the most success are in marriage and parenting. I prayed that Heavenly Father would help me to see myself as my children see me. Warning: if you ask God for such a thing, note that it may very well be a painful experience requiring a heap of humility, a good amount of patience, and the strength to love yourself enough to forgive yourself. It was, however, also incredibly rewarding because I observed fully just how much my boys truly adore me and trust me. I prayed that I could express myself in a way that when my boys see me, they see love. Even when I’m disciplining them, I want them to see that I do so out of love. I also prayed that I would be able to recognize areas for improvement that would help me to become the gentle mom that I wanted to be.

2. I Paused and Listened     This was about August because it only took a month or so for me to recognize that I don’t stop and carefully listen to my kids enough (“Hey, Mommy, is it ok if we parachute from the top of the treehouse?” “Why yes, Dear, that sounds lovely…”). When I was young, my mom took me to the doctor to have my hearing checked. After the hearing tests, the doctor somberly looked at my mom and told her, “I’m afraid Adrienne has a bad case of selective hearing.” Haha. It’s true. I wasn’t a great listener and it’s something I’ve struggled with. I’m still not a great listener. It wasn’t until last summer that I realized that being a better listener could help me be a gentler mother. I noticed that there were so many times when one of the boys would come to me crying, blaming something on his brother, and before I even gave the other an opportunity to speak, I immediately laid into him. Beautiful – my first opportunity for change. I started to pause and listen. When one of the boys came to me crying, blaming something on this brother, I paused. I asked the other for his side of the story. I listened. We worked it out calmly. I punished, if necessary, but I didn’t yell. Not once did I raise my voice. I chalked this up as my first victory.

3. I Used My “Mom Voice”   In the fall, I found myself envying a sweet friend of mine. She is one of those soft-spoken angelic mothers who never raises her voice to her children even a step, let alone an octave. I know quite a few of these moms and I admire all of them so much. That’s just not me. I always try to be kind and gentle toward my children, but I can be quite blunt and straight-forward with them, and I recognized that, unfortunately, this is when the yelling would come out.  As much as I wished I could, I knew that I couldn’t turn myself into one of those soft-spoken angel mothers, but I also realized that I don’t have to and that’s okay. Rather than try to be something I’m not, I recognized that I could still be my boisterous self without yelling simply by using my “mom voice” more often. After all, when the “mom voice” comes out, my kids, even my 2 year-old, know that I mean business. You know the voice I’m talking about  – the stern, deep tone you use to reprimand your child. It’s often accompanied with the calling of the first and middle name. When I use my “mom voice”, my volume remains constant but my tone is such that the boys know that they had better shape up because I mean what I say. As I seized control of my yelling habit, not only did I save my vocal chords but I learned that using my mom voice was even more effective than yelling! I think this is because when I yelled, my kids were so focused on how scary I was rather than focused on what they did wrong and how they could fix it. Scolding in a mom voice rather than yelling provides the opportunity to teach and discipline as opposed to simply punish. Without yelling, I found that I could calmly yet sternly make my kids aware of the poor choice they had made and teach them how to fix it (and not do it again).

3. I Enjoyed the Doing     Around November or December the stress of the holidays hit me. I quickly saw that, for me, more stress = more yelling. I decided I really had better do something about this or else I was going to utterly fail my challenge to become more gentle. As I contemplated this one morning, a favorite quote popped into my head (I’ve shared it before): “The biggest mistake I made [as a parent] is the one that most of us make. …I did not live in the moment enough. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.” I decided that, in order to stress less, I needed to enjoy the doing more, and one way to enjoy the doing more is to stop being in a hurry all the time (nigh impossible to do during the holidays!). Isn’t it interesting that children are never in a hurry? It’s almost as if their brains don’t process hurriedness at all. This was one thing that used to drive me crazy about my boys – “Can’t you see I’m in a hurry?! Get your shoes on quickly! Hurry, get in the car!” The more I would hurry, the higher my volume would grow. But why push them to hurry? Instead, I should enjoy the doing more and hurry to get things done less. I’m a punctual person and I get irritated if my schedule gets screwed up so, honestly, this was the hardest lesson during my challenge and one that I’m still working on. So, how am I doing? I still think it’s very important to be punctual, but I’ve been trying to organize my life so that I’m not in a hurry to get from one place to another. There are always going to be unavoidable delays (discovering a poopy diaper as I’m walking out the door, or running into a line of 10 people at Walmart and only one open register – a good reason why I shop at Target and not Walmart), but I’m learning to accept the unavoidable delays and not take my frustration out on my children by yelling at them to rush. I always complete the critical “to-dos” on my list, but I regularly remind myself that it’s not the end of the world if some things don’t get done. If I’m at the park with my kids then I should be enjoying their giggles and not looking at my watch every five minutes because I’m stressed out that I won’t make it to the bank in time and then home to finish the laundry. As I’ve tried harder to remove stress and hurry from my life, I’ve had more patience with my children and less yelling.

4. I Held Myself Accountable     In January, the ringing in of the New Year caused me to assess my goals. I had been working on becoming a gentler mother, but it was a little difficult to say if I had made much progress. I decided that I needed to hold myself accountable somehow. You know those calendars you see in factories or other places of business that say “Number of Days Without Incidence…”? Well, I made one for myself. Every time I raise my voice at my children then the counter goes back down to zero. There have been weeks where my number of days without incidence only gets up to 2 or 3, but I don’t beat myself up over it. I recognize that it’s all about progress, and I have to account for the times I slip up so I can improve.

5. I Filled Their Buckets     In the spring I found a book on my dad’s shelf that was exactly what I needed to wrap up my challenge. “How Full Is Your Bucket?” is a goldmine of counsel for understanding how to interact with others in a way that will build them up. The author uses the metaphor of a bucket. Positive interactions with others will add to your bucket and negative interactions will dip from your bucket. Interestingly, their studies have shown that as you dip from your own bucket to help fill another’s, not only is that person’s bucket added upon, but your bucket is added upon too. I internalized the advice in this book and put it to work in my family. In my daily interactions with my boys, I would pause to ask myself, “What I am about to say – is it going to uplift him, or will it tear him down? Will my words fill his bucket?” If my choice of words will dip from his bucket then I take a moment to re-word them. When reprimanding my child, I remind myself that I need to help him understand that I disapprove of his actions, not his person. As I have put forth an effort to fill my children’s buckets, being a gentler mother has not only become easier but it has become a joy because I know that I’m helping my children to grow and I’m giving them a fuller life.

As I’ve ended my year-long challenge, I pat myself on the back because I do believe that I have grown immensely. I think that I have become a gentler mother. The best part is that our home is more calm, peaceful and happy. I’m having more fun with my boys and fewer frustrating days. I also acknowledge my weaknesses, however, and know that I still have a lot to work on. In fact, my “Days Without Incident” counter is currently set at zero. Oh well, tomorrow is a new day…

Hugs, Adi

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