The heart of the matter

There are up sides and down sides of having several kids.  One down side: John and I sometimes fight frustration when a younger kid does the same dumb stuff an older one did.  Our internal reaction to black scuff marks on walls, or bikes that turn into rust buckets after being left outside sometimes feels a bit out of proportion.  We feel like we’ve covered this issue already.   And we’re right, we have– except then we have to remind ourselves it wasn’t with this kid.

The second kid who sneaks peeks at the answer key instead of working through a math problem, then unwisely writes: “Answers may vary” sometimes gets a more intense reaction: “REALLY? Again????” Again, we have to remind ourselves this is a different kid though the issue may be familiar.

But there are benefits too.  We may be battle-weary, but we are also a bit wiser.  Lately I’ve really felt like God has been impressing on me the importance of sorting out what’s going on in our kids’ hearts, something that I wasn’t focused enough on as a young mother 15 years ago.

I don’t naturally reside in the world of emotions–  maybe it’s the type of person I am.  I remember as a kid being embarrassed at times by a more emotional sister of mine.  I just didn’t get her. My Spock tendencies translated into a fair bit of ‘surface’ parenting in my early years of mothering too.  That first kid who copied math answers out of the answer key got a stern lecture something along the lines of ‘that’s wrong – never again!’ and most likely a mandatory redo of the previous 10 lessons of math. No real discussion, most likely no inquiring into why a person would do that.

I just didn’t get into their heads and hearts enough, didn’t talk through challenges enough.  They were well-adjusted kids who wanted to please me, so I got away with it.  But looking back I can see I missed some chances to find out what was really going on when they were struggling, to encourage them along the way, and to build more emotional closeness. I also missed chances to help them learn to sort out their own feelings.

In recent years I’ve spent many hours wading through the huge, impossible-to-avoid feelings of kids with complicated life stories.  Feelings so big it reminds me of honey spilled on carpet;  even if you work and scrub and clean for a long time, you’ll still find remnants of stickiness in random places later on.

God, who sees my own weaknesses as well as those of my children, has been working on me, too, through their challenges.  He’s teaching me the importance of that emotional realm in all of our souls.  If you don’t dig in and find out what’s going on in a hurting child’s heart, you can’t really encourage him toward right actions.  You just can’t. Heaven knows I’ve tried. Come to think of it, it’s even hard to change your own habits until you figure out why you’re clinging to them so hard.

I’m still far from touchy-feely.  (Even my word choice there tells you that, doesn’t it?)  But today I tend to probe deeper than I would have a decade ago.  A kid copying answers out of the answer key these days would be treated to a mom-led soul-searching:

“Why do you think you did this?  Were you wanting to go play?  Did the math feel like too much hassle?  Were you feeling frustrated? How do you think you’re doing in the diligence department?  What does God have to say about diligence and work?  Do you see that you were putting your own wishes over what God wants you to do?  What do you think would help you choose right next time?”

I’m still too heavy-handed at times.  I have to remind myself to leave big spaces for kids to talk and think and share what’s happening inside. I also still need to get better at asking about feelings during times of relative peace, not just when a kid’s being obnoxious and I’m trying to figure out why.  But I’m slowly becoming a person who’s more comfortable mucking around in the depths with my kids, talking through not only the behavior I see on the outside, but what’s actually going on in their hearts.  I hope that conversations like these will help our kids get better at sorting out their own feelings.  I know I’m getting better at sorting out my own.

What about you?  What are you learning about yourself as you strive to parent your children well?  What do you wish you understood right from the start?


  1. This is so timely for me. Like you, my big kids are biological and my littles are adopted. I think the woundedness that some of mine carry I will never fully understand but that’s no excuse to quit trying.

  2. I agree. So timely and well said. I was very much an “internalizer” as a child and beyond. As an adult, I’m now sorting through all the emotional content I stuffed away so many years ago.

    I want to be a parent they can — and want — to talk with. Someone they can trust to treat their emotions and thoughts as valid, regardless of their level of maturity. I pray that the Lord will continue to work tenderness and compassion toward my children into my heart.

    Thank you, Mary, for being willing to share the struggles as well as the successes with us. You are such an encouragement to me!

  3. I often get so down on myself for all the things I’ve done wrong as a parent – all the times I said “Not now, I’m too busy.” All the times I’ve let the TV “babysit” for hours (!) so I could have a bit of peace. All the times I’ve let my buttons be pushed and pushed until I’ve exploded and yelled and doled out overly punitive consequences for relatively minor infractions. Thanks, Mary, for reminding me that what I believe is my best quality as a parent – my ability to tune in to my kids’ emotional depths, to really talk with them unflinchingly about the good, the bad and the ugly – is truly important, too. I might not always be the most organized or calm parent – – – but I am good at talking!

  4. last night, before i went to bed, i painted 2 hearts on my fingers…one on each thumb. they are there to remind me, much like we’d tie a string onto our finger, of my childrens’ hearts… i need the visual reminder, probably more than ever, these days, that i must handle my girls with more love and less…adultness…
    i have an almost 4 year old with a very quick temper and a mind that is so very smart…and a 19 month old who wants to be just like her sister…and she’s a dare devil…
    much like your poster above mentioned, i feel like i overreact to things that are done in a given day – because i’m tired, because i’m tired of dealing with the same “stuff,” and yes, because i feel like my minutes for “me” are so few and far between…
    i keep thinking how my sometimes immediate reactions, instead that of the patient parent, and my tone…or my words…i can’t help that they might sting more than steer… and i hate that… i keep thinking how incredibly forgiving our children are…but i also don’t want these “little moments” to chisel away at my girls’ most precious, incredible personalities and hearts… but i also want them to be respectful, patient, kind, and loving….and i do not want my girls to shut me out because i overreact too much… i want them to come to me all the time…any time…
    so my hearts on my thumbs reminded me, often, today, to let my kids be kids…and when they needed redirection or correction, that i did it calmly and kindly…not sharp… 🙂
    and tomorrow, my hearts will remind me of the same thing… 🙂 because my girls are, without a doubt, the best gifts i have have ever been given…and i don’t want to ever forget that, even when i’m frazzled, tired, annoyed, frustrated, or overwhelmed… 🙂

  5. This post resonated intensely with me as my older kids are leaving the nest and I look back on how we built our relationships. And how much more thought goes into parenting the emotional kids who need help and an extra dose of understanding. I see how it has made me a better parent although often I backslide,

    The part about expecting the others to not make the same mistake? Brilliant. Mary, this post is so. Well written for those of us with families like ours (large and diverse) that God put together.

    Thank you. It feels good to not be alone. Keep on keeping on. Please.

  6. Like others, my kids about to leave the nest are biological. Young kids 2 and 5 are adopted. Having those older kids in the house is a wonderful reminder of the precious and fleeting moments with little ones. So that’s a definite bonus.

    I have found several books that help me oh so much with getting to the heart of life with the Lord’s perspective. Shepherding a Child’s Heart and Instructing a Child’s Heart are excellent helps in parenting below the surface. Also, one I really wish I would have read when it was first published is Heart of Anger. The title suggests it’s just for parents of “angry” kids. Not so. It is fantastic for understanding kids, and more importantly for understanding my own heart in dealing with my kids’ emotions and my response. Can’t say enough good about this solid, Bible-based resource.

  7. Such a great entry! This is a struggle of mine as well. Thx for the reminder to look for the bigger pic, the matters of the heart!

  8. Wow, Mary, you really nailed what I am like as a parent (and my kids are biological, with one stepdaughter). A lightbulb moment, for sure!

  9. This is such a great post, Mary. I’m on the same journey…. it’s good to have you as a traveling companion. Love you!

  10. This is a great post with lots of great reminders for me. Why had I never thought of the fact that I’m more easily irritated by the little things because I’ve already parented through it once? I, too, am not nearly as compassionate as I should be or work to get to the heart of the matter and have been working on this. Alot.

  11. Kudos to you Mary! Each of us needs to see where we are doing better.

  12. I sometimes am overly concerned about what others will think about me, my children, my family. It’s true. I hate that, but it’s true. Yesterday was a long day. All the concerns I’ve had with one of our children about possible learning disabilities was strongly confirmed. Every area of it. I cried. I let go. Today I found myself embracing something NEW. Several times throughout our morning I heard PRAISE coming out of my mouth to this child. Little things that would be a “way to go” for a 4 year old is SO VERY NEEDED right now for my 7 1/2 year old. I’m finding PEACE as I trust God with my children. It’s going to be a long journey. No doubt this is NEW territory for us. But I know that God has MUCH He wants to teach me , as a mom, through it. There will be times I still fall prey to the tendency of caring too much about what others are thinking. Instead I need to focus on what GOD thinks. So thankful my Father doesn’t give up on me when I’m a slow-learner. He is ever patient, kind, encouraging, merciful, faithful … I want to be more like that.

  13. As a mother of numerous children, I too find myself thinking ‘didn’t I explain this better, why am I doing again to remember that I had explained that item to an older sibling.’ I then have to chuckle at the number of times I have explained multiplication, tying shoes, making bread, showing a child to shovel the walk, or what greenery is actually a plant and not a weed.
    I don’t tend to dig deep into my kids’ psyche because I assume that no news is good news. Every once in a while I will ask a child if everything is okay in their world and if they feel the need to discuss anything but generally I wait for them to ask. I feel that this sets up a pattern for adult life also. They have to ask for help or advice. This is a practice that I have maintained with my adult children. Unless they specifically ask, I don’t volunteer or try to give my opinion about child rearing, religion, anything. I trust that I have raised them to the best of my ability and with God’s help they will function well as adults hopefully with little input from me.
    As I age, I find that I am more at peace, more patient, and generally not a much better parent than I was 15 years ago or so.
    And while this economy is not what most people would want to see our country going through it has had a very good side benefit—people are helping people more. This has been a much easier time to raise children to be compassionate because they are not too far removed from the person they are helping. Younger children are living in a more ‘prepared for the unexpected world’ than my children who are adults now.

  14. OOPS, should have proofread my previous post. Because I am more at peace and patient, I AM a much better parent than I was 15 years ago or so.

  15. I am a touchy feely therapeutic, talk it out, deal with your stuff, kind of mom. 12 years since adopting and I’ll talk about anything, most anytime, whether it’s in the middle of school or dinner or whenever. I’ve learned if the heart issues build up they’ll fight learning and chores and relationships. Sometimes I’m way too talky and I struggle to be simple, under 30 seconds. My oldest daughter used to tell me, 30 seconds, mom. That was my cue not to lecture and process but just do!

  16. Jennifer Hebel says:

    This is a big one with me and our family! Our family has 3 bio kids and we are about to adopt a 5 yeard old boy with autism through the foster care system. I’ve read “Parenting is Heartwork” – I highly recommend and am about to start “Heartfelt Discipline”. Being relationship based and focusing on heart issues to so time intensive all the way around. Time with Lord, time reflecting, time looking into your children…but so worth it! I’m so thankful for your blog and the way it makes the world a little smaller!