I had a couple of long talks Monday with my middle boy, to whom we are applying our â€œTomato Stakingâ€ parenting technique. It has been nearly four weeks since we started, and his patience is starting to wear thin.
â€œHow much longer will I be Tomato Staked,â€ he asked, plaintively.
â€œDoes it bother you?â€ I temporized, trying to keep my tone level while smiling gently at him.
â€œYes. I donâ€™t like never being allowed to be alone, and Iâ€™m embarrassed not to be allowed to play with my friends unless you or Mom are with me,â€ Daniel replied.
It has been a long month. Weâ€™ve mostly stuck to our guns on Tomato Staking, and we require Daniel to be in the same room or in our direct eyesight, seven days a week (except for when he is asleep or sent on a specific errand). Weâ€™ve poured out hours of extra teaching into his ears, and weâ€™ve been very encouraged that some of it seems to have lodged in his heart. By being present in his life nearly all the time, weâ€™ve guarded his conduct from spiraling down out of control, and helped him to significantly improve his relationships with his siblings. Weâ€™ve worked to teach him some basic charm, so that he can avoid coming to our negative attention by thoughtless disrespect. Iâ€™d like also to think that weâ€™ve shown him the depth of our commitment to him, and that our relentless love is fixed on him in an unwavering way.
One of the pervasive themes of our teaching has been in terms of teaching him to respect God, and (by extension) other people. Weâ€™ve invested in the filling of his â€˜moral warehouseâ€™ so that he can evaluate situations for their moral content and make choices that reflect a heart that is pleasing to God. Weâ€™ve taught him about respect for property, respect for authority, respect for nature, and a host of other values that stem from the value God places on people. Any moral code needs a meta-ethical basis, and weâ€™ve chosen to identify with the moral pattern that God has laid out so clearly in His word, the Bible.
We quickly realized that the first thing we needed to teach Daniel was how to listen. Although Iâ€™ve had ample occasion to teach Daniel many times before, Iâ€™ve not done a very good job at holding him to a high standard in terms of listening attentively. In the past, his typical response to a â€˜lectureâ€™ or any form of verbal correction would include:
- a slumped body posture
- scowling face
- overt yawning
- gaze vacantly directed out the window
- body fidgeting
- hands playing with anything within reach
- sullen, monosyllabic answers to questions (or no answer at all)
- a remarkable ability to misunderstand
- an apparent general unwillingness to think about what Iâ€™m saying
As I would correct my son, I often found that my initial mild displeasure with his infraction was soon replaced by a strong sense of resentment over his contempt toward me. My attitude toward him would darken, and my willingness to teach him would soon be exhausted in the face of what seemed to me a profound rejection of my efforts to share my wisdom with him.
One day I questioned him about it.
â€œDo you mean to communicate disrespect for what Iâ€™m telling you, by the way you look away and play with anything you can get your hands on?â€ I tried to keep my tone free of menace and incredulity.
â€œNo.â€ He still didnâ€™t look me in the eye.
â€œDo you understand how I might feel, trying to explain things to you, when you give every outward appearance of paying me no attention?â€
â€œNot really.â€ A bored scowl was still plastered over his face.
â€œWhen your face is frowning, and you donâ€™t look at me, and you play with your pencil, and you donâ€™t answer my questions, all those things communicate disrespect to me. I feel as though Iâ€™m wasting my time telling you things, because you donâ€™t seem to be listening.â€
Eventually I took the time to carefully and individually spell out each component of his body language, and how I interpreted it. I enlisted Kathyâ€™s help to support my assertion, so he could see that the response was general and not something he could easily dismiss, thinking, â€œOh, thatâ€™s just Dad, picking on me.â€ As we looked at each of the behaviors in the list above, we realized how much Daniel had unwittingly sabotaged his interaction with us, through his body language, and through our response to the contempt he was broadcasting.
These days, when I correct my son, he works harder to present a respectful posture. He often sits up attentively, and looks me right in the eye. He maintains a neutral or smiling expression on his face, and he (mostly) keeps his arms and legs still. Sometimes he answers my questions with complete sentences, and he works hard to stay engaged in the conversation. If he has to yawn, he has learned (or is learning) to discreetly cover his mouth and to quietly apologize.
These simple manners have worked a substantial change in my attitude toward my son. I find my tone is gentler, my face is kindlier, and Iâ€™m much more willing to explain abstract concepts, even when he doesnâ€™t understand the first or second time. Daniel is making excellent progress in understanding and embracing the moral principles that I have been teaching him â€¦ Iâ€™d say he has made about a yearâ€™s progress in moral maturity over the past month.
Iâ€™m very proud of my middle boy. He is kind, gentle, generous and thoughtful, and can be very selfless when he wants to be. He has a keen sense of justice and an evangelistâ€™s heart toward people who donâ€™t know Jesus. He is funny and loves to laugh â€“ his witty cleverness is a delight to our family. He is talented in math, and has a knack for figuring out how mechanical things work. His sunny disposition helps to endear him to many of the people he knows.
We still have some considerable work ahead of us. Over the years, Kathy and I have explained many moral principles to Joshua and Rachel, but Daniel was (at first) too little to understand. As time passed by, I think that Daniel got into the habit of â€˜tuning outâ€™ to our teaching, and we were not alert enough to correct that deficiency. Now weâ€™re making up for lost time, and pouring into him very explicitly the moral values that he needs to identify morally-charged situations and respond in a way that will please God.
â€œI figure youâ€™ve got another 4-6 weeks of being Tomato Staked,â€ I told him, â€œif you work really hard to listen to what Mom and I are teaching you. Early on in this process, it seemed to me that you were fighting against me, deliberately refusing to accept the principles I was teaching you. But lately, Iâ€™ve seen a change in you, and Iâ€™ve heard you repeating the things I taught you to your brothers and sisters. That kind of thing convinces me that you are ready to build up your moral muscles by making good moral choices without Mom and me hovering over you.â€
Some time in the next week weâ€™ll probably give him a day off from tomato staking, and see how he does. He is a quick learner, and if I can convince him of its importance, I think he can get up to an age-appropriate moral maturity level in a matter of a few weeks. Kathy and I would greatly appreciate your prayers in this matter.