The Sanctity of the Arm Pat, or How to Be a Humble Parent Not Just a Humbled One

We had a certain feng shui in our home.

As noticeable as the furniture placement, our mix of six personalities was exquisitely balanced. Three of us are intense, confrontational extroverts. Three of us are laid-back, peacemaking introverts. Three of us don’t understand moderation. Three of us live in middle ground. Three loud. Three quiet. Which means one half of us was pretty much always baffled by the other half, and this included Bill and me.

More conversations than I can count started off benign and ended in ways we never saw coming. Ambushes. Land mines. Flying shrapnel. Tears (usually, as the only female in the house, these were mine). Doors slammed or walls punched. (If you have a boy, this will happen once. In our case: four boys/four times. And four opportunities for our boys to learn how to repair sheetrock.) I’m almost entirely referring to the adolescent years here, which at the time felt like an epoch from which we might never escape.

This post is not about achieving balance in your home. Far from it. It is about how to get humble when it is easy to stay proud. It is about how to take a two second breather and consider that maybe, just maybe, your kid’s personality, his way of seeing, feeling and operating, might have something right in it. Even though it seems so wrong. How to respond when your kid’s take on the world is alien to your take on the world, as in scary from another planet “take me to your leader” alien.

I’m one of the intense ones, but I like the feeling of peace. I value ending the slightest squabble with “we’re at one with each other, right?” I value talking in the happy lilt of an infomercial or a sappy sitcom. So I guess you could say these collisions, especially the ones I had with boys so unlike me, humbled me. This implies that I did not go into those conversations humble. I went in proud and right and full of myself.

As a follower of Jesus, I understand that I have a spiritual governor inside of me. A voice that speaks gentlingly to my less gentle self. I recognize the Holy Spirit when I hear him. But sometimes, sometimes the noise of my own rightness in the face of a boy’s wrongness, a boy with emboldening peach fuzz on his upper lip and a bull frog in his throat and a good six inches of height above me, when all that noise was playing like incessant static, I did not hear the Holy Spirit. I would not.

And so I stomped on the land mines. And God spoke in the bleeding aftermath once I’d been humbled unawares.

Bill would tell the same story about those years when our two very different-from-him sons gave him fits of confusion. When conflict escalated as a result.

And then, somewhere along the way, Bill began to pat my arm or I’d pat his.

The message of the pat was simply this: Danger. Stop. You’re about to step in it and you don’t even know it. Think. Maybe you should leave the room. Let me take over. I get him and clearly you do not.

And I’d flick away the pat. He would do the same to my pat on his arm.

The message of the flick was obvious: Leave me alone. I’m right. Don’t tell me I’m not.

This did not go well. Pride never does. And so, eventually, after being humbled and humbled again, we both decided to let the arm pat make us humble. To concede that maybe we couldn’t do it. That maybe someone else (in my case, Bill, and in his case, me) could do a better job. To admit that our way was not necessarily the right or only way. To develop a humbler reflex than the one that obviously was not serving any of us well.

I admit that I’m like the horse David described in Psalm 32, “without understanding, which must be curbed with a bit and bridle,” but I tell you what, I’m thankful for the bridle effect of Bill’s pat on my arm. I’m thankful for a chance to get humble before I was humbled. And I believe his gentle pat was a harbinger of God’s promise to never leave me to my own designs.

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go. I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” Psalm 32: 8

I’m not sure what happened first. Did we become more humble parents and, thus, have healthier conversations with our sons? Or did they grow up to become humble young men and, thus, less apt to mine the field between us? Or did we just get through it?

Maybe so. But getting through it gave us ample practice in humility, in listening to wise instruction and heeding counsel, in recognizing that our own wisdom is never enough.

These days, when Bill pats my arm the message is nothing more than affection: I love you. So maybe this is the reward, that what was there all along—the love of God expressed through my husband, a love strong enough to break through my pride—is there still.

Still.

Love.

More than enough.

Why Less is More, or a Boy Mom Learns to Play Hard to Get

I had breakfast with one of my sons this week. Somewhere between our first cups of coffee and our last, he looked at me across the table and said, “We should do this more often.”

If you are a mom of a boy, especially a boy who is old enough to drink coffee, and even more especially a boy who is a man with a wife and children of his own, you understand how this comment made me feel. I don’t have to describe the little flip-flop that happened in my heart.

But it wasn’t all that long ago when the flip-flop could have ruined the moment.

This the danger zone between moms and their boys. I will not say we love them too much, but I do believe we express that love—say it, hug it, text it, call it, emote it, ooze it—too much. Come on, you know this is true.

Bill and I recently talked with some young married guys about the phenomenon of the man cave. We acknowledged that, for most men, the man cave is necessary to their survival. But they’d better not live there, not if they want healthy marriages. We talked about how moms and sisters and wives don’t understand the man cave at all. We don’t know how important it is to respect it. One guy said, “My mom didn’t invade my man cave, but she would stand at the mouth of it and chirp at me.”

I speak chirp, so I knew right away what he meant. For a boy, I’m just a little too enthusiastic in the wrongest moments.

Bottom line; boys need space. Most of us moms find this out the hard way. When our sons don’t tell us anything, when they answer our probing (normal) questions in monosyllables, when they shrug off kisses, and when they sometimes even act like we don’t exist, it’s their way of carving out the space they need in order to breath. They’re on their way to becoming men, and oxygen is vital.

Women take up space. Lots of it. Yes, we speak more words than our men, especially the adolescent ones, but there’s more to it than that. We feel more feelings. We require more feedback. We take things a lot more personally. We look them in the eye for longer than they like. (According to our boys, I made inappropriate scenes on TV more awkward by staring at them during those scenes.) I know I’m generalizing, but I’ve had years to observe this need-for-space vs. take–up-space dance between boys and girls and, later, men and women. I remember overhearing the yeah… uh huh… okay phone conversations our boys had with random girls, and wishing I could have seen what those calls looked like from the boy’s side when I was a teenaged girl. I had no idea. I thought they liked talking on the phone.

Boys love us, but they don’t show or experience that love the way we do.

And then there’s the fact that we love them so hard. There’s nothing wrong with that. But love is not a right. Sometimes, as our soft, cuddly little boys are morphing into hard, angular men, we fool ourselves into thinking we have the right to express our love any way we want to. 

If you think about it, it’s obvious when our love, aching and all, moves from a privilege (ours) to an obligation (theirs). We troll for intel on our son’s dating lives. We lament the lack of response to our calls and texts. We use tradition, food, money, and, worst of all, guilt to bribe our grown sons to visit more often. We wear our hearts on our sleeves. Our bleeding, pathetic hearts.

Beth Corbett was the only teacher all four of our boys had. I got to hear her parent speech on the first day of seventh grade three times (Matt didn’t enter her class until February, so we missed it that time around). Moms, she’d say, it’s time to let Dad step up. It’s time for you to be in the supporting role. Bake cookies. Cheer them on. Let Dad do the heavy lifting when it comes to discipline, especially with the boys. If there is no dad at home, enlist a man to help with this. In certain terms, Mrs. Corbett told us moms it was time to play hard to get just a little.

I have this theory that a man can handle only one woman at a time. And when your son marries, that one woman is not you. Thanks to those 7th grade speeches, I began stepping back long before our boys met the women they married. When it came time for them to leave and cleave, I’d had some practice letting go. So, Beth Corbett, if you’re reading this: Thank you.

For moms, not doing something is often the bigger sacrifice than doing something. But I am convinced that if you take a few steps back, maybe even as early as your son’s 7th grade year, you’ll experience a great return on that investment in the years to come. Pulling back is not easy for moms who love hard and strong. But when you give your son the thing he wants and when that thing is antithetical to what you want, it’s like giving grace. When you give it with your whole, pure heart, it’s a miracle.

I’m not saying be less loving, I’m just saying step back and examine that love before you say it, write it, text it, bake it, share it. Create some space, a place for him that is void of you. It’s what a boy must have. And if you do this, going against the grain of every mother instinct you possess, you’ll make a wide open road for him to travel back to you, not completely, but in rare, magical moments when over breakfast he might say something like, “We should do this more often.”

Yes, that would be nice.

The Poster Child for Pastor’s-Family-Goes-to-Hell-in-a-Hand-Basket

Years ago I was the poster child for Pastor’s-Family-Goes-to-Hell-in-a-Hand-Basket. I did not choose this role. In fact, if I could have, I would have chosen to be the poster child for Pastor’s-Family-is-Almost-Perfect, which come to think of it, might be why we went to hell in a hand basket in the first place. I wonder about that.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that we don’t get to choose what we’re a poster child for. It’s handed to you. Even Jesus experienced this when he walked the earth. By random selection, a scroll of Isaiah 61 was handed to him on his turn to read in the synagogue one day. Perhaps more than any other Old Testament passage, these verses beautifully express Jesus’ purpose for being on earth in the first place: “to preach good news to the poor… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

When Jesus finished talking that day, you’d think he’d be hailed as the poster child for Hallelujah-God-is-on-Earth. But no. By claiming to be who he truly was, he became the poster child for How-Dare-You and Let’s-Run-Him-Out-of-Town. While he was quietly fulfilling his purpose, Jesus became a very different kind of poster child.

Last week a friend texted me a picture of a slide from my friend Jeff Shinabarger’s talk at Chic-fil-A’s corporate office. I knew exactly what Jeff was saying about me, and I wrote her back, “Yes, I’m a poster child for fear” and added the most sheepish smiley emoji I could find.

I saw Jeff a few days later and asked him if I could please be the poster child for something else, like Superwoman-Gets-it-Done. Secretly, I’m happy he says what he says, but sheesh, why do I get to be the authentic representation of a weakness every single time? I forget sometimes that I am weak. Jeff smiled and said, “Oh, so you don’t want me telling the Refuge story whenever I get a chance?”

If the most relatable part of this story is my fear – my daily terror, I should say – I’ve decided that’s okay. Overcoming the fear is what helps me fulfill my God-given purpose, whether anyone else but God sees that purpose or not. The fear is rather large, all glossy and obvious like an action movie poster. But at the end of the day, posters are flimsy pieces of coated paper with curling edges that fade and eventually disintegrate in the sun or the rain. They are the skin, not the DNA. They are the shadow, not the substance. A poster doesn’t begin to proclaim the purpose for your life. A poster does a better job pointing out the very thing that, like it or not, keeps you humble enough to approximate that purpose in real life.

Who you are and what you do matters more than the poster that tells about it. If you are driven by a purpose (for instance to raise children with love or to lead a non-profit well, which can be personal expressions of proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor”) and if you trust a God who trumps random selection (like making Isaiah 61 come up on the very day his Son stands to read in the synagogue), then whatever is handed to you is worth grasping with all your might. Take that poster, unfurl it, and tack it up with pride. Just go with it.