The other day, I was sitting at a restaurant with a friend of mine and her husband. The waiter had just set our drinks in front of us and I opened my menu to try to decide what to eat. I was having a hard time choosing, even though I knew everyone was waiting for me. It was 7pm, and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, making me decidedly tired and hungry. My friend warned me that I was about to hit my glass with my menu and as I was gesturing to her that I was totally fine, I accidentally knocked my super-full, super cold, super-large glass of milk across the table.
“I TOLD YOU TO BE MORE CAREFUL!” said my friend, “Why won’t you listen? You’re worse than a baby!”
“That is IT!” said her husband, “We warned you that was going to happen. We can’t take you anywhere. I hope you’re happy because you’re not getting another drink.”
The story above is true. I mean, it’s true-ish. You see, the whole story actually happened, but I wasn’t actually in the middle of it… I was watching it go down at a nearby table in a local restaurant. The tired, hungry, clumsy drink spiller was not me. It was a little boy, probably 5 years old. The adults in this story, as you probably guessed, were his parents. The words and the tone, well, they were exactly the same. The boy, of course, started to cry. His mother told him there was nothing to cry about, so he needed to knock it off. His father told him to start cleaning up the mess. I did my best to turn away and focus on my own menu and on not spilling my own glass of iced tea.
It’s easy when you’re a well-rested mom of grownup kids who rarely spill anymore to sit from her seat and judge the harshness of the parents. Unfortunately, my fading memory hasn’t faded enough to forget the many, many times I reacted just as strongly, just as fiercely to my own children without thinking one bit about my lack of mercy or grace. I still remember those early days- when my son and twin daughters were small and everything felt so hard and impossible and important. Mainly because it was hard and impossible and important. Trying to teach kids to be responsible, considerate, and careful on a steady diet of interrupted sleep, unfinished meals and nonexistent alone time puts one awfully close to the edge. Little things like a lapful of milk can push you right on over.
During those early parenting years, I was on the phone with my dearest friend in the entire world when she said “I have to go. It’s time to feed the people.” I laughed at her term for her children and asked her why she called them her “people.” She told me that it was her reminder to herself that these are people- they are not just her kids, they are actual people. That really resonated in my heart because, although it’s pretty obvious that these little ones who depend on you for every little thing are human beings, it’s super easy to forget that they are real live people who have feelings and thoughts and emotions just like us. As simple as it sounds, this tiny little conversation changed my parenting perspective completely. I began wondering how I would feel if other people treated me the way that I treated my children when they made a mistake. It caused me to stop with the yelling and lecturing, and start putting myself in their shoes.
For example, if you and I went out to eat tonight, and right after the server brought our iced teas, I gestured to you and spilled my drink all over the table, I can’t imagine for one minute that you could even consider yelling at me. I am positive you would not call me a baby, even if you’d warned me that I was going to spill if I wasn’t careful. If I started to cry, you’d remember that I told you that I’ve had a really rough day, that I was super tired, and that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. You’d never even think of telling me to stop crying. You’d probably try to make a joke to make me feel a little better, help me clean it up the best we could, and then give me a fresh start by ordering me a new cup of tea. Maybe one with a lid this time. We’d laugh together and I would feel loved. You would give me mercy, even if I owed you an apology for dousing you with tea. You would give me grace, even though I didn’t deserve it. You would do those things because you are graceful and kind and compassionate and because that’s what people do for each other.
Here’s what I realized when I started looking at my children as people: no matter how old you are, the way people react when you make a mistake matters. Yelling and humiliating is awful whether you are five or fifty-five. Mercy and grace, on the other hand, feel an awful lot like love at any age. Choosing to give grace when our kids spill milk or forget homework or lock the keys in the car doesn’t mean we aren’t teaching them to be responsible, considerate, and careful. It just means we’re also teaching them how to be graceful, kind, and compassionate.
Those things are important, too.