The Arm Pat

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.

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  1. Cynthia May 20, 2015

    I just love your posts. And what’s fantabulous is that (from a single parent’s perspective) the Holy Spirit is a patter, too! Who knew? It took me a few years to acknowledge the pat. :)

  2. Created Well @ The AntiBlog May 20, 2015

    This is so powerful. I’m a wife but not a mom and I worry about (if Jesus doesn’t come back first) what kind of bumps I’ll run into with my own children when they are pubescent. Will the relationship be like mine was with my mom – her perceiving it one way and me perceiving it totally different and staying far from her when it came to intimacy. Maybe I’ll be that parent who’s really awesome and sails through those years with relational victories. But I know of wonderful parents who have kids that still give them fits, no matter how careful and intentional they were. I guess this stuff is inevitable! Hearing the dynamics of it all is very helpful to normalize the imperfections of parenting, growing up, and maturing in Christ.

  3. paige May 20, 2015

    this is awesome!! so well said
    you rock as parents!