It’s not often I come across an article referencing Common Core standards that doesn’t mention the catchphrase “grit” and relate it to what we must be building in our kids in the modern world. While I agree with the idea of helping our kids develop perseverance and tenacity – in essence a strong work ethic – I do not support the idea of this information being collected by the government en masse without proper oversight to ensure that kids’ “scores” don’t hinder their opportunities to pursue the futures they desire, not to mention the extreme violation of privacy of so much monitoring “non-cognitive factors” that reach far beyond mathematics and reading skills. Just how necessary is it for my elementary student to have his every social interaction monitored and filed on his permanent record? Grit and tenacity, I strongly believe, are one of those sacred responsibilities for parents to foster in their children regardless of the educational choice a family makes. The facial expression cameras and pressure mice suggested by Common Core advocates, though not widely used yet, can never replace the intimate knowledge parents have of their own kids’ personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and intelligence that is not measured on bubble tests. I know that the definitions of grit and tenacity have their place in the educational world, but I want to address a different aspect of these characteristics.
I have had the opportunity lately to broaden my own understanding of grit and perseverance with my four year old, Ketziah. If ever there was a strong-willed and determined little person, she is it! Ketziah is a very sensitive child, and she has a very particular method of dealing with her environment. She is precise and agreeable, but her sense of justice is so strong that it often leads to complete meltdowns over what I would consider to be minor issues. The way she deals with her world, both positively and negatively, is with strong emotions. When I think of all my kiddos, I actually think most of them have very strong “feelers” and are willing to pay a high price to use them. However, Ketziah has broken the mold.
God has done a lot in me over the past few years in how I relate to my children’s strong feelings. I was not raised to express my feelings despite being an extremely passionate person. I learned early on how to stuff them deep down. While the skill of hiding an emotion might be called for in certain circumstances, it has taken me a long time – decades – to figure out healthy ways of expressing feelings and to determine safe places where I can pour out my heart instead of stuffing, which is extremely unhealthy for the soul. I’m still learning. When I first started out as a mother, I was so overwhelmed by these little ones who had SO. MUCH. FEELING. I hadn’t the first clue about how to help them use their words to tell me what was going on inside in a respectful yet genuine way. My first instinct was to constantly be telling them to be quiet and stop carrying on. I didn’t allow them to share when they were truly hurt or confused because I didn’t know that it was not only okay, but extremely important for them to develop a sense of safety and confidence in their identities. Jaelah was probably about four years old before I realized that I was going to seriously damage her if I didn’t let her be herself, an independent and wildly dramatic person with feelings spilling over the edges of her heart’s cup at every turn.
My next step in learning was to help the girls know that it is always okay to tell Mom and Dad what is going on. We want to be a safe space where they can learn how to put words to their feelings, especially the negative feelings that we are often taught to fight against. The fact is, sometimes we just have to be honest about the struggle instead of pretending everything is okay. More than anything, I don’t want my girls to struggle with guilt over being straightforward about what might be a tumultuous storm inside the heart. I thought for many, many years that I could not even be honest with God about what was truly going on in my heart. Yet, He knew anyway. I have found that the easiest way to overcome being ruled by my emotions (and thus being helpless to change anything) is to find a way to give words to the struggle and thus release its power over me. Rather than stew in the negativity that I refuse to acknowledge or express (though it doesn’t disappear just because I ignore it) I have been making a concerted effort to get those things OUT so that I can see them objectively and determine with the Lord’s help how to move forward. Our efforts with helping the kids get those thoughts into words were a bit clumsy at first. After many years of practice, I am happy to say that it’s somewhat often that I will get a note from one of the girls sharing a heartful of words on a page with expressiveness, tears, and a sense of vulnerability that is beautiful and humbling to me as their mama. I think they are refreshed when they unburden their hearts.
But God wants to take me even deeper in my understanding of how my children cope with their emotions. Going back to grit and perseverance, I am coming to see that, in particular, Ketziah’s fierce determination to express what is going on in her heart is the precursor to her developing her own grit. It has been a long time since I stopped constantly trying to snuff out my children’s feelings (far from perfect here!), so Ketziah was born and has grown up in a mostly “feelings-friendly” environment right from the start. And boy, does she ever have a lot to share! Part of the development of perseverance is to give voice to the struggle. We have to acknowledge obstacles if we are ever to overcome them, and using our God-given heart understanding and strong responses to said obstacles is part of the process of overcoming. It is how we get from one valley to the next mountaintop and on again. I am not talking about teaching children to express themselves in a self-controlled way, for that is certainly part of the process since a full-blown tantrum at Costco does nothing to help children identify what is really going on inside. I am referring more to teaching children a habit of talking, putting words to their experience on a regular basis – before we ever get to meltdown territory. Sometimes, for my more internal, less verbal kiddos, drawing a picture of how they feel or whispering it in my ear when they have some embarrassment about something is an effective way to help them address their hearts. The point is getting it out in some way before it eats away at their insides and turns into really ugly things like resentment and bitterness.
My ultimate goal is to help the children know that all the things they say to me or Pete actually can be addressed to God in prayer. I won’t always be right there with them, but it is my job to help them understand first how to get words to what is going on in their hearts, then to find a safe place to express that. Sometimes, that will be a person, but more often than not, Abba Father is the only One who truly will understand. Prayer journals can be an excellent way to turn to God more and more and rely a little less on Mom with each year that passes. Jaelah and Selah have become much more comfortable sharing things with God in their prayer journals, and I truly hope that this process has started a lifetime of dealing with strong emotions in a healthy way. I still pray they will find amazing friends who will support them, and that they will become good friends who can listen well.
The freedom I have experienced is in realizing that I don’t have to control the children’s emotions. I can let go of my desire to control the environment (and the noise, if I’m being really honest) and let them stumble over words to say what they need to say even when it is inconvenient and uncomfortable for me. I still have many, many moments where everything in me wants to shout, “Just get over it, already!” But I know that is merely a fleshly response to something precious God is doing in each of my little one’s hearts. I don’t get to determine what kinds of beautiful gems will be unsurfaced as they are fashioned by their heavenly Father. Their Creator is the One who pieced them together. If there ever was a need for patience in me, it is during these times of seeing what so clearly seems to be an utter lack of grit and tenacity, yet I only need look just beyond the surface to see that Abba Father is molding my young ones into fierce lovers of Him who experience their emotions in a straightforward way and embrace them, rather than try to flee at anything scary or sad. The “grit” is being developed before my eyes, as I raise these children to not be afraid of the one thing that probably holds many of us back from more than any other external force – our own emotions. It is those times of weakness and learning to admit the need for help – first from Mom and Dad, then ultimately from the Lord. Being at peace with our weakness is so important. Realizing that dependence upon Him is of utmost significance if we are ever to truly be able to rely on His strength to accomplish anything. When I see my young daughter falling to pieces over yet one more trivial matter, being able to zip my own mouth shut (rather than belittle or ignore her) and help her both express and give her burdens to Yeshua together with me is a priceless lesson in love.
I still have a long way to go on this journey, yet I believe I have seen the light. This new understanding dawned on me so clearly in real life the other day. Just as I was tempted to keep all this new revelation unmarred in a peaceful, cerebral realm, it all came crashing down to earth in my twelve passenger van. We had planned to go to lunch at my grandma’s house. Ketziah really enjoys making cards for people and once she knew we were going wasted no time in getting out her art supplies and fashioning a beautiful two-piece card, complete with tape, markers, and sparkle. She kept telling me that she wanted to go out into the yard to pick a flower for Grandma. I overcame my irritation trying to finish school work before leaving for lunch and went out into the backyard to help her select the perfect dandelion. She was so happy. Not ten minutes later, as the kids were getting loaded into the van, everything came to a screeching halt as Ketziah tripped in the garage and face-planted at a full speed run’s pace. I could hear the shrieks all the way into my closed bathroom in the house. It took a good ten minutes just to get her calm enough for band-aids, but she still could not stop sobbing. I ended up getting her a lollipop from my secret stash, thinking that would help her calm on the drive over to Grandma’s. Nothing doing. She finally was able to choke out some words about her card being messed up when she fell. I tried to tape back the card the way I had remembered, but she was still in full meltdown mode. As I started driving, she started crying again, “my flower is gooooonnnnneeee!!!” It dawned on me that of COURSE she was upset over the very thing she had poured her entire morning into creating. But by now we were in the van and 10 minutes from home. What could I do? “It’s just a silly dandelion,” I told myself. “She has to get over it.” Yet the Lord suddenly poured on me this deep sense of compassion and understanding. It was like He personally invited me to creatively work with Him to help Ketziah heal this hurt, insignificant though it might have been in the grand scheme of things. I literally felt driven to find a way to make this right. Just before we got on the highway, I saw some flowering bushes by the entrance to a hotel parking lot. I steered our big van in and parked, feeling utterly ridiculous. I called Ketziah to come out of the van with me. She put her pudgy little fingers in my hand and with tear-streaked face walked over with me to select a perfect wildflower for her card. Immediately, all tears and sobbing stopped. I could literally see the healing of validation flooding her little body with relief. Your dandelion is important to me, Ketziah. Your card for Grandma MATTERS to me. Your tears and feelings matter. I’m going to help you bring calm to this storm inside you.
We got back in the van and drove to Grandma’s house. And of course my Grandma knows about these little girl kinds of things and she promptly put Ketziah’s flower in a cup of water on her counter. The sight of Ketziah beaming with happiness at her treasure being treasured was so special it brought me to tears. In thinking logically about this whole encounter, I realize that there will not always be a way for me to get new flowers for Ketziah in those times in her life when she loses old ones. Not everything is going to work out smoothly or have a precious ending like this one did. Yet, what did I reveal to her about her mommy’s heart in that instant? I hope it was something like what Yeshua has shown me – that He sees the little details, the sparrows that fall, those secret thoughts of the heart that are almost too insignificant to utter in prayer. He is the truest of Friends. And can I be that to my little daughter as she walks her way through these years until she is mature enough to understand His tender care over His lambs? I was so humbled to be used by Him in a way to bring truth to my daughter’s heart. How tragic it would be if I had lost the opportunity to see what was really going on! What message would I be sending if I had been more concerned with her being quiet and controlling herself? The longer I walk this harrowing path of godly motherhood, the more I see that there is a big difference between rebellion and disobedience, and the struggle, curiosity, and tears of simple childishness. I have to make the choice to see what He is doing, and join Him in it. There are times to bring discipline and boundaries, and times to bring the softest of gentle and reassuring touches. Oh, may I submit to the Holy Spirit as He guides me to the right choice in each situation, developing perseverance in me AND my children.