When my youngest son gets angry, he often gets dramatically pouty. It may start with something as simple as my refusing him one more handful of potato chips. It’s like I’m a snack bartender. I’m mopping up the bar and I see someone who’s tipsy on Cool Ranch Doritos, so I throw the towel over my shoulder while explaining that I’m under mom-bligations to let a person know when he’s has had enough and suggest something to balance out the junk food like an apple.
Once confronted and told “no,” he tends to go straight for the Oscar nomination for Best Whiny Pleading. If he’s feeling especially irritable, he’ll play the Runaway Card. There are some for whom running away is a serious proposition and definitely not a joke, so I would not make light of those circumstances. But for my son, it’s a calculated move. He has no intention of actually leaving our property, sometimes he only gets as far as the garage, but he’s wanting to tell me something and test my response.
When one of our daughter’s was younger, she would try the same thing. She would announce her intention: “I’m leaving!” and I would set up a camping chair by the house. I would say, “I always want you to be safe, so I’m going to sit here and watch you. Make sure you can see me. If you can’t see me, you’ve gone too far.” I would watch her walk down our very long driveway maybe with a backpack or a baby doll, and when she got to the mailbox, she would turn around and come back. This is what worked for her, my strong-willed girl who had always known me and counted on me to be her mom.
For our 7-year old son who’s only been a part of our family for 2 years, I have had to change tack and choose a different approach. When he marches off angrily, I know he wants to punish me. I also know that I am angry, too. I want to go inside and watch TV and let him sort it out alone. But even though my parenting correction was justified, I know that he desperately wants to be pursued.
This happened last Saturday. His pouting was like a carrot on a stick leading him to the overgrown field behind our house where the weeds were as tall as he is. I sat at the patio table and watched him as he glanced back at me over his shoulder a few times. The stubborn part of my brain wanted to show him tough love and let him get eaten up by chiggers, but an image came to my mind of a different parent, a fictional father from a story Jesus told in Luke 15.
We often call this parable The Prodigal Son. The main idea is that we are like this son, messing up everything and wasting what is good, then finally coming to our senses and turning back homeward. The father is our God, waiting there for us with open arms, forgiving all our stupidity. But I tend to think there are several layers to these stories, and I wonder if we are sometimes called to be the father, too.
Did this father stand outside looking toward the road from town for days and weeks and months, praying that his son would come home? Did he keep his love ready for his son’s return by reminding himself that it wasn’t about him but instead about his wayward son?
This is my inspiration. When I was given this job as a mom, it was an invitation to grown up, or as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”
I followed my son to the field and stayed in his general proximity until his anger had subsided. (I may or may not have fibbed and said I saw a snake in the tall weeds to get him motivated.) At bedtime, my husband and I discussed with him about how to calmly tell us how he feels and how his actions will never make us stop loving him. Hours after the initial disagreement, he was finally repentant. And while this is what we parents are ultimately looking for, it became clear to me that my job is not only to work towards favorable behavioral results in my kids but to be there for every step of the process.