Mom Fail: Turning Our Worst Moments into Teachable Ones


The other day I lost it with my child. I lost it over a turkey and cheese sandwich my four year-old was resolutely refusing to eat. Yes, you read that right: I lost it over a turkey and cheese sandwich. He was hungry; I was angry. Both of us were firmly sticking to our guns (like mother, like son—stubborn is as stubborn does). I felt justified. After all, it wasn’t like I was asking him to eat pickled herring or creamed brussel sprouts on toast. This was a simple and standard lunch, enjoyed easily enough by children all across America. Why could he not put an end to both of our miseries and eat the blasted sandwich! For the record, I didn’t curse, but  I did huff and puff and blow a few cabinet doors closed as I glared at him across the kitchen. He cried. I felt horrible. In the end, he went to bed at naptime with sandwich still untouched. I was left with a plate piled high with frustration and a heaping side of guilt.

It took me longer than it should have, but later I pulled him aside and apologized. I asked his forgiveness and he freely offered it. He sealed the solemn moment with a kiss, a tender mercy I didn’t deserve, an unexpected grace to a faltering parent.

Friend, it’s hard for me to be this vulnerable with you. But I want you to know that sometimes I fail my children miserably. And I want you to know this because I know you do too. All of us do. And the more honest we can be with our own shortcomings, the better we will be able to lead our children. Here’s why: Our children need leaders who can sympathize with them in their weakness. Our children need leaders who can call their own selfishness, pettiness, discontentment, control-freakishness, and pride by name and who more than that are willing to wage war with it just like we are asking them to do.

Do we look from on high commanding our children to share, return good for evil, consider the needs of others, not complain or argue and yet not admit to them that we struggle to do right in all these areas as well? Which of these would inspire you to follow: “For the last time, Noah, share the crayons with your brother! Can’t you do anything I ask you to do?” Or if a mother took you aside and in confidence said, “Noah, I know it’s hard to let your brother have some of your favorite crayons. Even though God gives me plenty, I often don’t act like what I have is enough either. But when I give to others and see the joy it gives them, it makes me realize that doing the hard thing is worth it.” The mother might even offer to pray with him and ask God to help him choose the hard, but right thing.

Let’s take it for granted that neither of these comments may elicit the desired result (after all, our children are born with free and vibrant wills of their own; they are not robots that we can control with the right words). But even so, which of these conversations is more likely to plant a seed which will grow into a tree of generosity? Which is more likely to help the child realize that you are on his side—an ally in the common battle of becoming better than our own selfishness? Which suggests that you respect him, sympathize with his weakness, and believe that with God’s help he has the power to leave the world better than he found it?

A good leader does more than police the boundaries. A good leader inspires her followers by continually planting ideas of greatness as she walks among them. Ideas lead them. “Oh, isn’t it wonderful to see the smile on your brother’s face when you let him have the first turn.” Or what about: “I like the way you are speaking so kindly. Did you notice how your sister is following your example too? Isn’t it amazing how we can encourage one another!” Aggressive authority bruises bent reeds. It snuffs out smoldering wicks. It leads the already dejected to further despair. Those who follow the example of the gentle Shepherd lovingly fence the boundaries, inspire the stumbling to press on to the heights, and carry the weak in their arms.

I’m not always that good shepherd, but I know the One who is. If even in my weakness, I can point my lambs to Him, the perfect shepherd, the One who purely wants their best, the One who tenderly leads them, the One who does not let them lack for any good thing, then I am leading them well. All of us will fail our children. The question is will we use those failures to model repentance, will we use those failures to show them the One who leads and loves them better than even we can?


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This Child of Mine: The Weight of Carrying a Soul

child of mine

Luminous mystery—in my clearer moments, I see you, child of mine. You are dazzling. You take my breath away. You embrace me with nothing held back, with no pretense, no ulterior motives. You are a possibility I have not yet come to know. Sometimes at night, I watch you sleep: your chin tucked to chest on your pillow, your knees pulled in, your slim frame curls into a question mark. Who will you become? What will you teach us? What shores will be changed by the ripple of your life?

But your worth is not in your possibility, but in your present. The world does not wait to be changed by you. This light one whose fingers clasp around my neck, and whose head lies so softly on my shoulder, you who I lift almost effortlessly have a weightiness, a heft, because you are more than possibility, you are a person. You are a person who is changing me. You are a person, created in the very image of God.

Jesus, said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:4). He knew we had something to learn from your dependence, from your abandon, from your wonder, from your joy, and from your trust. Hear the way He speaks of you. He held you on his knee as ones who possessed dignity, as ones made in the very image of His Father, as ones who had something to teach the so-called “wise.”

Do I treat you this way? Do I revere you as a splendid person of infinite value, not because of your possibility or your capability, but because of your essence? Do I remember that I did not create you, nor do I own you? You are not my child, as I would talk about my car or my house. You are on loan to me. You are entrusted to me, not simply for what I can do for you, but for what He wants to do in my life through you. So thank you.

I do not mistake you as perfect, dear child. Oh no, of all people, I have a front row seat to your sin-soaked moments (as you do for mine as well). I know we are both desperately flawed and desperately in need of the One who called us both to come. But neither should I mistake you as ordinary. We should both remember that as Lewis said, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. “

As I teach you right from wrong, let me remember that you possess an everlasting soul, and that I struggle along with you in bending my spirit to do that which I know I should. As I explain to you things which seem simple to me, like 5+5=10, may I remember that while you may lack knowledge, your mind is a dazzling wonder, assimilating information at a rate which far surpasses my own. While I dress you, may I remember that you are an individual, unique in your tastes and personality. When you ask me to play with you, when you cuddle up next to me with a book, when you instinctively reach for my hand, may I remember that I have a friend in you who perhaps surpasses any I have ever or will ever know. When you speak, may I listen with expectation for how you will challenge and change me. As I lead you, may I do it with a trembling heart, knowing what a treasure God has entrusted me.

Little one, may I always remember and respect that you are a distinct and splendid person. May I hold the lightness of you in my arms with the weight of wonder your soul deserves.


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Grace Conditioning: Nurturing Godly Habits in Ourselves and in Our Children

ballet shoesLast spring I got to go see my sweet six year-old niece, Lucia, perform in Cinderella at the Kennedy Center. She was a delightful bumble bee who received spontaneous applause when tossed over the shoulder of one of the adult dancers in a humorous moment where she left the stage kicking her little leotards in a well-practiced protest.

Going to the ballet at the Kennedy Center is not something I get to do often, and so that evening, I soaked in the beauty and the grace of so many well-conditioned dancers doing exactly what they had trained their bodies to do. I lost myself in an enchanting forest scene where snow drifted peacefully to the ground while nymphs and fairies made magic with pirouettes, grand jetés, arabesques and relevés. Through the ballerinas’ constant practice, their muscles obeyed their minds in a way that seems almost unconscious. Grace becomes instinct. (Even off-stage, a ballet dancer can’t help but move gracefully. It is in the tilt of her chin, the line of her spine, the obedience of her shoulders, and the lightness of her step: grace habits.)

Lately, I’ve been thinking of those grace-conditioned dancers as I’ve been reading some of the writings of Charlotte Mason, a British educator, born in the 1840’s, whose life and legacy re-shaped English schools and is today having an impact on countless other families. While Mason has much to say on educational practices as we traditionally think of them, recently what I’ve been soaking in are her thoughts on habit-training.

She writes: “As has been well said, ‘Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.’ And a great function of the educator is to secure that acts shall be so regularly, purposefully, and methodically sown that the child shall reap the habits of the good life, in thinking and doing, with the minimum of conscious effort.” (Vol. 2, p. 124).

While certainly only the Holy Spirit revives and reforms our corrupt hearts and the sin-bent hearts of our children, we can and are instructed to train our children in righteousness. And through constant reinforcement of godly habits, God uses us to shape their characters.

I don’t want children who are merely outwardly conforming to good habits; I want children whose hearts have been transformed such that they crave goodness because God has changed their natural thirsts. But I pray that as I surround them with that which is good and pure and right and train them in habits which reflect those qualities, that I could somehow participate with the Holy Spirit in what God alone can begin and bring to completion: the work of giving them new hearts and minds. If my motions mimic His, if my mothering reflects that which is good, and pure, and true, perhaps somehow in this beautiful mysterious dance of aligning my life and heart with His, He might be gracious enough to choreograph His work of change in their spirits.

How I long and pray that my children—yes, my boys—would be conditioned in grace, would move instinctively through life with the grace of ones whose hearts have learned to bend to God in obedience, whose hands extend in gentle kindness, whose feet leap to help the hurting. How my heart burns to see their lives revolve around their rightful center, the God who is their fixed point in a turning world.

But it begins with grace in my own life. And so I have been asking God to train my heart as I seek to practice the daily conditioning of bending in obedience to my Creator, stretching toward Him in the midst of my heavy days, or holding the pose of patience even when my whole body aches to let go. My habits need constant attention, but I’m more mindful now of letting my ever-gracious instructor condition me in the disciplines of grace that I might in turn live gracefully before my children.


Interested in reading more about habit training? Download a free e-book from Simply Charlotte Mason called Smooth and Easy Days. Interested in reading more from me, check out some other recent posts about mothering with grace here: Play with Me Mama: a Lesson in God with Us, Just Another Day Dragon-Slaying: Raising Braveheart, or The Interrupted Life. You can also find my books: Waiting in Wonder: Growing in Faith While You’re Expecting or As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda at your local bookstore or on Amazon.

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