When 3 year-old Ian comes to visit his adoring Papa, we fall easily and naturally into joyous companionship. We play with wind-up toys. We “cook” meals with play dough. We pop popcorn and watch Robots yet again. Loving him is easy.
But what about the child who is harder—who is too loud, too negative, too demanding, or too hyper—the child who grates on our nerves? How in the world do parents get a loving perspective on difficult children?
That is where God invites us to grow. As I regularly say, irritation is an invitation. We can stay stuck in our this-child-is-a-mess view or we can choose to open our hearts to the child. We can see all the muck in a fallen child or we can see the glory just barely concealed by mortality. We can see past dirty hands and abundant mistakes to see one of God’s cherished children who comes trailing clouds of glory, who will learn and grow, will face discouragement and pain but will choose God and goodness. We can shout for him to stay out of the cookies or we can provide a glass of milk. We can see her grumpiness or recognize the difficulties of being a child.
A brilliant psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, taught: “Every child should spend a substantial amount of time with somebody who’s crazy about him or her. There has to be at least one person who has an irrational involvement with that child, someone who thinks that kid is more important than other people’s kids, someone who’s in love with him or her and whom he or she loves in return.”
Research is clear: The single most important factor in the way a child develops is nurturance. Does each child feel loved, valued, cherished, and supported? Nothing matters more for healthy development.
But how do we change from irritation to appreciation? The answer is surprisingly simple: we can choose to see with compassion.
We all make sense of what we see. And, quite unnoticed by us, we all have default settings for our evaluation switches. We stand ready to be irritated by certain behaviors or certain personalities. But we can throw those switches from irritation toward appreciation. When a child splashes in mud, we can interpret it as stubborn disobedience or joyous exploration. When a teen asks a prickly question we can see impertinence or exploration. We can focus on the inexperience and fallenness or on the goodness and earnestness.
When little Vivi scribbled in my scriptures, the natural man wanted to slap her hand. But we love Vivi! So, when she finished her creation, I put a small notation at the bottom of the page acknowledging the artist and noting the date.
I must confess. I continue to pray for an outpouring of charity toward some children. Some children and some actions are especially difficult for each of us. They challenge us to think differently.
It will be much easier for us to offer the loving view to our children if we grew up feeling understood and cherished. Unfortunately most of us did not get nearly enough love. There is one great remedy: We can let the immense and perfect love of God heal our wounds and fill our empty places. When we are filled with God’s love, it is natural for us to be patient and loving with our children.
Just gritting our teeth with the child who irritates us will never lead to effective parenting. We need an outpouring of the heavenly gift: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure” (Moroni 7:48).
But the gift of charity is not simply imposed on us by heaven. We must cooperate. We must work with all the energy of our souls to see the goodness that God sees. We must give children the benefit of the doubt. We must be willing to understand their world and their needs. We must spend time building a relationship with them. We may need to lovingly counsel with them about how they can best manage their strengths.
In addition to loving wholeheartedly, a good parent must also set limits and impose consequences. But when these are done by a parent who is striving to parent with unstinting love, the result will be gloriously redemptive.
Notice irritation. As it arises with a specific child, ask God how you can build a positive relationship with that child. Based on His direction, make deliberate efforts to build a connection and strengthen the relationship.
I wrote Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth to provide a gospel overview of parenting. You will find balanced answers for the challenges of parenting in that book.
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