Yesterday morning, while our sickish boys were playing with their dad on the carpet of our living room, building Lincoln Log garages for their cars, August suddenly became Concerned. He was standing in his pjs and his little brother was walking past him en route to some other task, when August turned to him with a serious stare and put both hands on Brooksie's shoulders. Now, usually, Brooks would care less about August’s earnest pleads. Usually, he would shake the hands off and continue moving single-minded toward his task at hand. But this time, he stopped and looked up into his brother’s eyes.
Out of nowhere (all of our conversation at that point had been about Lincoln Log houses), August gave Brooksie one of his most heartfelt speeches:
“Bwooks,” he said, “Something weally important: Don’t ever wun in front of a car that is backing up, okay?”
“K,” said his brother.
August dropped his hands from Brooksie’s shoulders and they both moved on to their playing.
Chris and I stared at each other across the room, our eyebrows raised, lips smirking. And I ran to some paper and wrote the words down (because that’s what I do). My oldest son loves his brother. He cares for him deeply and can be tender and wise toward him one moment and then pinning him on the floor, pinching his arm hard with his fingernails the next. For every heartfelt brotherly speech, there are 25 smackfests between the two of them, almost always instigated by the big brother. He ends up in time-out and it always turns into a disaster of wills: mine versus his. And most of the time it feels like his will is stronger. I lose the battle. And does anybody learn anything?
I nurse my motherhood failures with my head in my hands and take away a privilege from my son once time-out is over: “Well, you lost your dessert today.”
He says, “That’s okay. I don’t want dessert anyway.” Great. What am I doing wrong? Why does it feel like all my attempts and my commitment to persistence actually mean nothing? Will my son grow up to hit because all I could come up with was taking away his dessert?
Friday night I was putting him to bed and praying for him, my hands smoothing hair from his eyes, rubbing his back. I quoted one of my favorite passages in , prayed, “God, give him a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone.”
“What does that mean, Mama?” My kid rolled over to face me. I could make out his eyes staring up at mine in the night-dark room.
“It’s a metaphor, buddy,” I said. (Yes, we use words like metaphor with our kids. We’re book nerds. What can I say?) “It means I’m asking God to make your heart soft so you can hear God’s voice and so God can make you more and more like Jesus. If your heart is hard like stone you forget how to love and you forget how to listen to God.”
He rolled away from me to face the wall, whispered, “Mommy, I’ve got both those hearts in me.”
Sometimes I gasp at his words, how such depth can come from him. Then I remember who I was as a four-year-old. I remember that time I swung in my babysitter’s back yard by myself and Jesus came near and we talked. I know it’s possible to understand spiritual truth when you’re four-years-old. Of course it is possible.
I whispered, my hands tickling his back. “I know, honey, we all have both those hearts. That’s why we need Jesus.”
And I finished praying. Though I don’t know what I said.
Both hearts are in me, I thought. All this striving toward winning the Very Best Mom Prize wears me down. God asks me to love my kids faithfully, with perseverance. But God has never made me my kid’s conscience. I can reward his good choices. I can confront his ugly choices. But I cannot make his character compassionate. That’s inward work. That’s the work that requires God's tender intervention.
And here’s the thing: My son already knows about that inward work. He knows what’s a stake: both those hearts are raging within him. And my job is pray his soul through the journey of those two hearts.
There’s relief in that. There’s hope in that.
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