A friend of mine asked me to post the hard parts of having a kid. Well, above is a photo of my kid acting ‘hard’. If he doesn’t get his way—which he often doesn’t despite his best attempts at launching tyrannical tirades—his face turns thuggish with a deeply-etched razor-scowl bent on unleashing a torrent of scratches, head-butts, scrapes, kicks, and slaps often strong enough to cause a minor hematoma (I have one on my brow as I write). We can try to soothe him. We can acknowledge and redirect his desires. We can invest ourselves in alternative playtime with him.
My go-to remedy, oddly enough, is to hug him. He may need space alone to get out his frustrations, but that always results in hugs, too. Meeting his frustration with our love is simultaneously off-putting and comforting to him when he’s boiled over with rage. Perhaps he just can’t stand having mixed feelings, but hugging him causes him to relent and cry and cling tightly to me. I never thought toddlers could meet discipline with such confused and subconscious ambivalence. It’s like having a teenager.
I think about all this every so often and I wonder who he will be. Every so often, I begin to entertain thoughts (catastrophize, maybe?) about whether this is a phase or if it’s a permanent fixture of his personality. Does this enraged toddler foreshadow a sulky adolescent flirting with future borderline personality disorder? Will I have that kid I read about who at one moment is playing gleefully with his mama and the next moment threatening the lives of other kids the moment he doesn’t get his way? The same boy whose mother knew the hospital orderlies by name whenever one of these fits went too far? Okay, okay: That’s a bit extreme to consider at this point in my boy’s development, but I’m not wandering too far off the script of modern parenting should I play the role of worrier-in-chief.
But there’s a lot of love between here and teendom. I have a plan that will help my boy connect the dots between being an enraged child and becoming a canonization-worthy man, but I’m faced with the prospect that nothing I can plan from this vantage point is foolproof. Unlocking the idea that his rage is quelled by love tells me something, however: every child battles a spiritual battle from the get-go. Just a short while after they let go of simple comfort of routine nourishment, playtime, and sleep, they realize quickly that they’re addicts of attachment, affection, and presence. Mama leaving the room? Prepare for wailing and gnashing of the baby teeth. Papa going off to work? Witness how the joyful morning transforms into the sour-dour-hour. Insisting on early bedtime? Brace for a toddler’s revolt unless you provide two dozen bedtime stories, five hundred hugs, and a pillow for two. They demand an immaterial response—a closeness, an intimate contact, a maturing communion. Because this child longs for anything but a sheer biological response: He has a trajectory—a telos—towards unwavering love. He’s aiming toward God.
In other words, his spiritual life is nascent, but alive. And all his years I could respond to his fieriness with stern rebukes, corporal punishment, emotive appeals, redirects, and a countless other “techniques”. But if I am going to foster an environment that sets his fiery soul on fire for God, that will require a kind of Redemptive Discipline, where he knows that his upbringing is not just an adjustment of bad behavior, but a boy journeying on his way to whatever God intends for him. Or, in Catholic parlance, he will require from me what will one day be his Cause for Canonization.