Vice and Parenting

The humility of parenting and the practice of the presence of God.

“I think it sounds too King James.” My husband and I are talking about a book that uses the word vice to describe parenting foibles. I disagree with him. He may be in publishing, but the word vice sinks through the mist of my thoughts, lands on something that’s been swirling nebulous for a few days, and then flashes on and off with a neon glare. Blink, blink. VICE.

I have a three-year-old, a three-year-old who upon being told she has a time out, snatches my specs off my face. Who claws a palm full of butter when we are baking and burrows into her bed covers to eat it.  Who gargles and spits milk and throws her food at the dog to get Daddy’s attention at the table. Who will do anything and I mean anything to get a rise from her nineteen months older sister.

She’s breathtakingly adorable the other half of the time.

But I’m not talking about her vice.

A few months ago on a show my husband and I watch late when the room upstairs with the bunk beds is silent and the dishes are in the dishwasher, but the floor is unswept because we’re too tired to care anymore, I heard an expression, probably popular, but new to me.

“Why does everything you touch turn to shit?”

For weeks, this question scraped at me, niggling off and on. At first, I had a notion that it recalled my mom staring mournfully at some piece of freshly scarred furniture: “Everything gets destroyed.”

As one of the child perpetrators, I had a balloon of resistance inside, a tiny voice that wheezed out, “No, that isn’t true” and then deflated away in assent.  Resignation that we did destroy everything.

My husband caught me recently after another incident with the three-year-old, one arm and hand wrapped around her waist, holding her up to the sink, the other hand scrubbing her hands, crying out, “Why do you have to be so naughty?”

When I’m frustrated and trying to get dinner on the table or our girls out the door, these words and others can come gunning out.

“Why are you so mean?” “Why do you have to ruin things?”  “Can’t you be good for one minute?”

They assume big, global statements: “You’re always naughty. You’re always mean. You always ruin things. You’re never good.”

I hate that I say them. And it’s that shame and disappointment in myself that makes me grab onto the sharp edges of the word vice and say, “I’ll take this as true about me.”

Vice is one of those words that I’ve avoided.  It smacks of vice squad—prostitution and gambling and drug dealing.  Big sins that hurt society. Like most Americans, tucked inside the confines of my own home, it wasn’t a word that could be used on me.

But having kids blew away my privilege of protected private behavior. What I say to them in the home is going to shape them into who they are outside. Not to mention that I don’t know if I’ve ever been so aware of the Authority over my shoulder who once made this comment, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believes in me . . . (NSRV),” and you know the rest.

Maybe I need a little King James Version right now or a reading in the Seven Deadly Vices. Each of the vices is internal, hard to control. My vice, when my tongue is unleashed, is “anger,” or traditionally “wrath.” Instead, I require the inverse virtue of “patience,” classically called “meekness.”

If I were patient, I would be unruffled. Not my gifting as my three-year-old could tell you. I’m drawn more to the word meekness because I sense humility behind it.

One little book with the words of a seventeenth-century monk has meant more to me as a mother than any of the parenting books I’ve read: The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. I read it in my twenties, and its content of constant conversation with God helped to alleviate the other voice I dialogued with inside, my inner critic, hammering me with a frequently false perception of myself.

These are the words that give me hope each day as a parent:

I am full of faults, flaws, and weaknesses, and have committed all sorts of crimes against his King. Touched with a sensible regret I confess all my wickedness to Him. I ask His forgiveness. I abandon myself in His hands that He may do what He pleases with me.

My King is full of mercy and goodness. Far from chastising me, He embraces me.

And also these:

He said he carried no guilt. “When I fail in my duty, I readily acknowledge it, saying, I am used to do so. I shall never do otherwise if I am left to myself. If I fail not, then I give God thanks acknowledging that it comes from Him.” [1]

The line “He said he carried no guilt” astounded me as a shame-filled twenty-something-old. And now afresh as a mother of preschoolers.

When I say I’m sorry to God (and my three-year-old), I’m forgiven. It’s done, and we start over. Moment by moment. As bad as anger is, my despair over my own (in)ability to parent is harmful too, training my children to respond the same to their misbehavior.

I once wrote in a friend’s baby book that the greatest gift she could give herself was self-forgiveness. Only it’s not something we give ourselves. We must trust that we are forgiven. This is the humility that leads to meekness. That God’s grace is so boundless that He forgives again and again and again, seventy times seven. That my shame does nothing to earn His favor or transform me. That the Authority who looks over my shoulder, longs to embrace and forgive me. Knowing these things I can live in hope that my change will come. I can cup my hands as His water spills over and washes away the vice to begin anew.

[1] The Practice of the Presence of God, found at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/5657/pg5657.html

Heather Walker Peterson
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.

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