If only . . .

I remember telling my dad, “My prayer is to never have to say, ‘If only . . .’ when it comes to parenting.” I’ve been parenting my children for a little over 13 years now. I’ve had to say, “If only,” more times than I’d like to admit.

One such time was last summer when I backed into my 10-year-old son with our van. “If only I had checked.” “If only I wasn’t in a hurry.” “If only . . .”

By the grace of God, my son was fine. The fact that he had known I was leaving shortly after I dropped him off didn’t get in the way of his desire to play with his Legos, in the sunshine, in the driveway, behind the van. When I backed up, I felt the resistance and stopped. It was like a slow motion movie scene as I rushed to the back of the van to first see scattered Legos and then see my son.

When I saw him, I screamed, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I am so, so sorry!” He was crying too. I looked him over and over. His legs were scraped up pretty badly, however he could stand and nothing looked broken. He then began apologizing to me. He knew he had made a bad choice. But I knew I was supposed to be responsible. I was the mom. I had just hit my son with the van! What mom hits her son with a VAN?!?!

This mom. This mom had to call the doctor and explain to the receptionist that she needed to bring her son in because she hit him with the van. This mom had to call her husband and tell him that she hit his son with the van. This mom had to explain to the nurse, the doctor, and the X-ray technician that she hit her son with the van. This mom had to explain that she hit her son with the van to friends, family, and curious/nosey people who could see the bad scrapes, scratches, and bruises on his legs.

That day I had made an obvious mistake in my parenting. But I had made a not-so-obvious mistake as well. Up until that day, I had put much of my value in my own parenting. I had felt like I was a pretty good parent. Because of that, I had put my self-value, my self-worth into my being a good parent, until I did something characteristic of a bad parent. Then what? I was crushed. In my mind I had lost a big part of my self-worth. But what if I had put my value in being a beloved daughter of the almighty God?

Being a dearly loved daughter who had made a horrible mistake—who could crawl in the lap of her Creator and ask for comfort and forgiveness—changes everything. The same is true for every Christian parent. Our value isn’t in our own parenting skills, but in the God who gifted us with children and loved us enough to forgive our failings. If we find value in who we are as dearly loved children of God, we never have to be good enough. We are enough because God made us so.

Holding our children accountable

If you were to ask my now grown children, they would tell you that my husband and I held them responsible any time they were caught in gross disobedience. They might even tell you that we held them responsible for small and imagined infractions.

What they don’t know is that there were times when one of us wanted to believe our children’s versions of events rather than that of the accuser. Against all reason, common sense, and sometimes our conscience, we wanted to diminish or dismiss a major offense.

One incident in particular came to haunt me. My son had been reported to have been extremely unkind to a child, “Jack,” in my care. Jack was a very challenging child in terms of behavior and had himself bullied other children in my presence. When I questioned my child, he assured me that he had done nothing wrong. I accepted my son’s version of events even though I had nagging doubts.

As the day wore on, I noticed that my son got very quiet and had no appetite for lunch—this from a child with a voracious appetite. He then told me he had a tummy ache. Fortunately, my son was not a very accomplished liar. His guilt was written all over his little face and had even started to manifest itself in his body.

Reality finally hit me in the face. I asked my son if something was bothering him. He tearfully confessed that he was indeed guilty of the unkindness. The words rushed out of his mouth as though he’d been holding them in. He wanted to apologize immediately to the child he had wronged. I, too, wanted to apologize. I felt terrible that I had not believed Jack and had done him such an injustice.

Later, when I paused to reflect on this whole incident, I realized the great disservice I had done to my son. By not holding him accountable, I had denied him the chance to repent and then feel the healing balm of forgiveness.

Had I denied my child forgiveness? If you were to have asked me if I would refuse to forgive my child, I would’ve protested. And if you had asked me if I would tell my child God did not forgive him, I would’ve been appalled. And yet, that’s the promise I was withholding from my child when I did not firmly and lovingly turn him to face his sin. For without acknowledging his trespass, he carried it as a burden of guilt. I was complicit in strapping that burden on him. Only when he laid it down did he feel the relief only repentance and forgiveness can bring.

In the following years, I would have occasion to remember this incident. The remembrance was not of my son’s misdeed but mine. It helped me to be firm in my resolve to hold my children accountable. When a friend told me she didn’t think I was an “advocate” for my children, I shared this story with her. When we as parents advocate for the truth, it may sometimes mean we are faced with our child’s transgression. When that happens, we have the greatest answer to any sin, forgiveness.

Living in the chaos

The alarm blares—letting us know the time has come to get coats and shoes on to get to school on time. The two-year-old just licked his sister and she, in return, knocked down his block tower (which clearly spells apocalypse in these parts). We are arguing and rushing, and only 30 percent of us are wearing pants enough to be deemed publicly acceptable. And the coffee is NOT READY. There is crying, whining, and yes, even yelling. We rush out the door, hurry into the car, and scurry off to school. This is nearly every weekday morning in our house.

In my clearer moments, the quiet times—usually when kids are sleeping or are on a rare trip to the store with dad—I can see that I let the chaos of the day-to-day overwhelm me and turn me into a mom I don’t want to be—the anxious, uptight, order-barking, stick-to-the-schedule grouch who doesn’t appreciate what amazing people my kids are and are becoming.

In those moments I promise myself that I’m not going to let the next chaotic moment get to me. I’m going to embrace the madness and learn to love that my kids would rather dance than put their shoes on. But in my very human way, I find myself making the same mistakes over and over.

I’m told I’ll miss these days, but while I’m living in the chaos, I find it hard to believe that I’ll miss the last-minute trips to the bathroom after everyone has been bundled in winter clothes or the four milk spills at breakfast while my son learns to use a big-boy cup. Maybe I won’t miss the mess and the craziness, but I will definitely miss the kids being small and watching them grow.

Parenting mistakes

Recently I was talking to a new mom. It had happened. Her normally stationary infant had gotten just enough strength to roll. And roll she did. Right off the bed. Tears streamed down this young mother’s face as she lamented, “I just turned my back for a second.” Thankfully, as any seasoned mother will tell you, infants are tougher than you think and the child was fine about 60 seconds later. No worse for the wear.

We have those moments as parents. Those times when you make a decision and your child is negatively impacted—usually physically—because of that choice. And sometimes it’s those mistakes that are the most memorable. But I have a theory about parenting mistakes that I’m still working out. I think the biggest parenting mistakes are the ones that affect the soul and of which we are ignorant except in moments of rare clarity.

I had one of those moments recently. I was sitting on the couch with my daughter. I reached over to grab my coffee, and that’s when I noticed something about my daughter. She had grabbed our iPad. And there she sat quite adeptly swiping and tapping, squeezing and pressing right through about three different apps. That’s just in the time that I watched her. Did I mention she was not yet two?

Now you might suppose that I’m about to talk about her developing young mind or her language acquisition or mourn the times my parenting had deprived her of the natural environment, but I’m not. Not right now. That’s a worthwhile discussion for sure. There’s a reason why Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use an iPad. What I was concerned about in that moment and what I’m writing about right here is something that I think is even more profound. What I’m writing about right now is a dad who has at least on occasion absented himself from his daughter with an iPhone. What I’m concerned about is the power of the ding of a text message or the pull of an e-mail that had required me (so I thought) to hand her a replacement parent. What I’m writing about is a young soul who had been taught a lesson about the value of her presence vs. a glowing screen—a lesson that was all too personal for her.

I need grace from Jesus for that. And I know I have it. There was no temptation that would or could pull Jesus from his higher calling of loving children. Not even when he was exhausted and tired from a long day of dealing with people. That righteousness is mine through faith. I’ve worn it since my baptism. I believe that so deeply as a parent. And that righteousness not only covers me, it calls me. It calls me to be better, to work harder, and sometimes even to set family policy. When we go out to eat, I leave my phone in the car now. When we eat family dinner, my iPhone is set to vibrate in the other room. And when my daughter gets up in the morning now and needs a minute to wake up, she sits in my lap with her blankie and I use the time for prayer.