I once had a daughter who refused to apologize. Not for everything, mind you, but for a very specific category of offenses: accidents. If she stepped on your toe, scared you so that you dropped something, or bumped your arm while you were underlining something in your book (and turned your underline into an unsightly scribble on the page), you knew you could expect nothing from her.
No sign of remorse.
Definitely no apology.
As a Christian, I believe in man’s fallen nature. I believe my daughter is a born sinner (as am I myself). I think it’s easy to read the paragraph above and jump to the idea that she needs to be disciplined. I need to tell her what she should do — how to behave in this type of circumstance — and then make her do it.
I get that. I really do. In fact, I did do that. It’s just that it didn’t connect; she continued with the behavior regardless of how I dealt with it. When something like this happens, it’s easy to let our imaginations run away with us. Is my daughter a sociopath? Is she forever lost??
You know what I think helps us in our mothering a whole big bunch? Christian charity. One aspect of charity is thinking the best of someone. If I saw my daughter acting this way and immediately assumed she was a sociopath, I’d be hitching my own train of uncharitableness to her little caboose of rudeness.
My sin would then be greater than hers.
One of the most horrific aspects of motherhood is when Mother one-ups the children with her own sin. They sin — possibly against Mother, even — and she turns around and repays them sevenfold.
Look, we’ve all done it. Pretending that we haven’t gets us nowhere. Only confession begins repentance. So let’s clear the air and confess and then get on with the repenting part.
I really think repenting of this sort of thing begins with becoming a detective.
Being a good mom implies a number of things — there’s a collection of qualities, skills, and knowledge the ideal mother would have in order to be good at her job. As regular moms (not ideal moms), these things are life goals, qualities, skills, and knowledge that we chase after.
The skill we’re discussing today is investigation and the knowledge we need is insight into the children.
We want to walk in wisdom with our children. Wisdom shows itself in making good calls and giving wise counsel, and both of these things are impossible if we are ignorant. We need knowledge of God’s Word and how children are in general and how they grow and learn and so on and so forth, yes. But also, we need specific knowledge of specific children. Why are they doing what they are doing?
The Story of the Little Deaf Boy
Life can be very troublesome and so I once had a little toddler boy who seemed very defiant. This child just wouldn’t do anything I asked him to do, and he’d happily disobey with a smile on his face. I felt like I’d “tried everything.” By “everything,” I meant all the usual, normal stuff of consistent, healthy discipline and habit training.
Word to the wise: there are two options when a mother says she’s “tried everything”. The first is that she has, in fact, not tried everything. She’s only tried what she prefers, and not gotten the results she’s looking for, but she believes the lie that her preferences are the sum total of the world of “everything.” The other is that her child is in fact and outlier and investigative work needs to be done.
So I guess we’d say step one is honest evaluation: have we properly defined “everything”?
If we have, and we’re in outlier territory, we need to start looking for why. This is why step two has to be prayer. Lord, please give me insight into what is going on with this child.
Aforementioned defiant toddler was in rare form one afternoon while I was cooking dinner. Everyone had noticed. Someone said something to him.
“What???” he replied.
Someone else said something to him, and the same reply came again.
“He sounds like a little old man!” I joked. “Check your battery!” I teased him.
And in that moment it hit me: this child had a hearing problem.
You know what is more devastating than realizing your child can’t hear? Recognizing that you have been guilty of character assassination for a long time. I had been calling him naughty.
We mothers must repent often, mustn’t we?
The Pre-Teen Who Forgot How to be Respectful
Sometimes, you let something slide until it’s too late. Now, instead of a one-time infraction, you’re facing a mature bad habit in all its ugliness. The boy who, for example, toyed around with speaking to you disrespectfully at age 10 doesn’t seem to address you respectfully at all anymore at age 12.
The solution for this, of course, is not so much punishment as it is habit training. Intense habit training, actually. Once you start to deal with it, you have to deal with it every single time it happens, no exceptions.
Disrespectful speech is something that responds well to do-overs. It’s not rocket science. If you come to Mom and say something rude, she will ask you to say it in a better way, in a way that is respectful.
But sometimes you say, “Hm. That was rude. Say it in a respectful way,” and their second attempt is worse than the first. And the third is by far worse than that!
Is this a sign that I have forever lost my son’s heart? Should I mentally relegate him to the criminal class at the tender age of 11?
If it’s really a habit, it’s much more likely that he’s forgotten what respectful sounds like. This is what my investigations have taught me time and again. (I have had many rude children. Ha.)
This might sound dumb, but 11-12 year old boys are notoriously dumb, so actually it’s par for the course.
Instead of assuming he has so little respect for you that he cannot muster right speech, assume he needs training. Show him what respectful sounds like. Exaggerate a disrespectful example and have him listen for the difference. Can he hear it? Ask him! Boys that age may be dumb, but they are still worth talking to.
Then try the do-over again. Did he do much better? If so, it’s likely not deep resentment toward you harbored in his heart that came out in his multiple failed attempts at respectful speech. He just forgot what it was like to have good manners and needed you to train him. That’s what you’re for, after all.
The Little Girl Who Wouldn’t Apologize
It took quite the investigation to solve the Mystery of the Unapologetic Girl. This was one of my tougher cases, but one clue I had going in was that this child was extremely unconventional in how she thought about a lot of things. Possibly this was another addition to that list.
And wow. The mental gymnastics some children are capable of are astounding at times.
Do you know? This child believed that if she apologized for accidents, she was admitting that she purposely tried to hurt you. She wasn’t so much refusing to apologize as she was refusing to lie about herself and her motives. It took a lot of convincing and many multiple examples to help her understand that this was not what an apology for an accident was saying, that we could feel sorry for the harm that was done even though it was an accident.
She was dubious, but eventually it clicked. Today, she (mostly) apologizes for such things.
My First Example of Detective Mom
When my firstborn was an infant, I didn’t really know other people with children. We were the first of our friends to get married and the first to have a baby. I was flying blind and it showed. (Thankfully, I had a good mother as an example.)
But it’s not my own mother I’m talking about. We were still in L.A. County, and there were a couple women at my church, much older than me, who had preschoolers. One of them was having quite the time getting hers potty trained. He just refused no matter what she did. She tried all the tricks. He was a very bright child, so I was surprised. I watched the drama unfold with intrigue. I didn’t know anything about potty training yet.
Apparently, they hit a point of crisis one day. I don’t know what his mother asked him, but he finally cried out, “I DON’T WANNA GO TO SCHOOL!”
Do you know what all the resistance was about? His little friend was potty trained and then promptly shipped off to preschool. This child believed if he refused, he wouldn’t have to go. He wanted to stay with his mother. She explained she wasn’t sending him anywhere, and he was potty trained almost immediately.
Should a boy obey his mother, regardless of his feelings about what she’s asking? Yes, of course. But it was this situation that started me down the investigative road. There is usually a why worth knowing, and knowing it allows us to walk in wisdom with our children.
How to Investigate
I already said that the first step of investigation is prayer. We need insight and it is God who opens eyes to see.
After that, we use our five senses, just like every good detective. Watch, listen, smell, touch — and pray you don’t need to taste anything because it’s likely to be gross! Sometimes watching means keeping a journal and writing what you see every day until you finally notice a pattern. This means you have to be patient.
And sometimes we bring in the professionals. Start with a good grandma if you have one on hand. Good grandmas make everything better.
Investigations can be very brief, or the work of many months. Some children are onions and you end up peeling layers for years.
This is why the theme verse for being a mother is Galatians 6:9
Let us not grow weary of doing good…
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I love that this article puts on display the reality of the complexity of children! There is a lot of nuance in a child and I need to have the humility to investigate in order to be the steward God has called me in my mothering.
I agree completely about the need to be a detective. My kids are grown now, all in their twenties, but over the years God has taught me about that. One daughter at age 3 was terrible about throwing screaming tantrums when we were in public. None of our other kids did that. None of our disciplinary measures worked. Spanking had zero effect. One day, after she’d ruined yet another fun family activity and I had to remove her from the scene… I was frustrated and furious with her… the Lord must have intervened because suddenly I had an idea and asked her something that had never occurred to me before, “Are you afraid?” She sobbed out “yes!” It was a light bulb moment. She was absolutely terrified in open spaces and crowds. Once we realized there was actually a reason for her behavior, we took steps to help her and the tantrums stopped. She wasn’t trying to be disobedient; she was dealing with abject terror and couldn’t even verbalize it.
This is why we need to stop making assumptions (about our kids and other people’s) and let the Lord guide us in every aspect of our parenting.
(That daughter is 23 now and doesn’t mind crowds anymore).
What a powerful story! And how gracious of God to reveal this to you. ♥
I really needed to hear this today! I have an 11-year-old boy 😉 and a 13-year-old daughter, an 8-year-old daughter, a (very stubborn) 5-year-old daughter, and a 2-year-old sociopath 2-year-old son, so I need to make investigative mothering more habitual in my oft-frustrated thinking.
Oh, Brandy! That last story almost made me weep! This is not the post I was expecting, but I agree wholeheartedly. I have that same daughter, and after your first line, I anticipated the second to be, “I don’t have that daughter anymore. Because I killed her.” 😆 Seriously, it is so frustrating, but how do you make a child who is the opposite of effusive say something she thinks incriminates herself… without using military torture devices?
This was so good. We have to think like a child sometimes in order to get under the behavior.
“We have to think like a child sometimes” — oh, my friend, how true that is! I think my assumption early in motherhood was that children’s thought processes were simplistic and so I could just trust my surface-level understanding.
So with my daughter, I did *make* her practice apologizing, but each time, I reinforced the truth: you are apologizing for what happened, but not saying that you did it on purpose. There are different types of taking responsibility, but she was only considering one. Also, when *I* did something accidentally and needed to apologize, I had discussions with her. “Hey! Do you see me apologizing for X? Do you think I did this intentionally? That I was trying to hurt so-and-so when this happened?” Eventually, it all connected up in her brain.
This article is challenging for me. I think most moms I know tend to be overly charitable to their kids. They struggle to ask their children to do anything unless there has been a discussion. I try to teach my kids to obey me, and because my kids are little, I don’t have a discussion about it. In the case of the first girl, isn’t objectively wrong for her to not apologize? You shouldn’t assume your child is a sociopath for what they did, but it’s okay to tell them they are wrong, right? Would love more along these lines as these are the types of questions I know I wrestle with & I see my friends wrestling with.
This is a good point. And you’re right — I’ve noticed that many of the young moms I meet have no concept of authority or what healthy authority looks like. It’s easy for me to forget that because that is NOT the case with the moms I spend time with. Maybe I should add that I *did* tell her she was wrong (repeatedly) and I did *make* her apologize. But it didn’t connect inside of her until I dealt with the underlying issue. I think I’ll add that to the article for future readers! Thank you for the feedback.
I think it’s both/and not either/or — we *must* be authoritative. God gave us that position and to not hold our authority is to not do our duty. But within that context, detective work can be immensely helpful. In Charlotte Mason Think Tank, we spent a lot of time on Charlotte Mason’s third principle, that authority on the part of the mother/teacher and docility/obedience on the part of the child/student are natural, necessary, and fundamental — that this relationship dynamic is nonnegotiable for learning to take place.
Now that I reread it, I HATE how I put it. 😛 Definitely refining that part.
Ah thank you for your response! Yes, my oldest is 8, so I was thinking this probably changes as your kids age. I certainly hope i’m able to be more of a detective & can help my kids as they get older instead of always bossing them around. I feel very bossy & I don’t enjoy that part of motherhood. I’ve enjoyed what you’ve written in the past on authority & the will, and really appreciate the response. I haven’t done the think tank (yet), I would like to someday!