Thursday, May 29, 2008

Breaking the Good Mom (and Pastor) Myth?

(Here is a post full of questions and musings. I've arrived at absolutely no answers.)

I'm reading a book on motherhood (although it could be addressed to parents in general) this week. Here's one of its claims. "Myth: Good Mothers Manage Sibling Conflict.... The good mother ideal insists we manage our children's relationships, ensuring they do in fact love and care for one another....The current societal myth dictates that the good mother is responsible for managing this situation. She must jump in and break up kids' fights, discipline the batterer, and console the wounded. After all, good mothers run the family. It's their domain, and they gotta make sure it's all running smoothly, interpersonal relationships included."

Schafer's ideas run counter to the way things go in our family. Mark and I indeed try to manage, discipline, talk down every situation. We make ourselves judge and jury the second there's an outcry from a child. And we do it because we want to see justice and fairness in the relationships between the girls. We want the perpretrator of crime to contemplate and reflect on the inappropriateness of her actions. We want the victim to be comforted, to know justice. We wrack our brains to come up with "appropriate" consequences. It's exhausting. But I struggle with how much of Schafer's ideas to embrace. Her advice: dont' get involved. Make the kids work it out themselves. This is SOO hard to do with an irrational three-year-old, who claims with passion that her invisible owies are gushing with blood just so she can score a band-aid. Non-engagement is SOO hard to do with an almost six-year old who has an overly heightened sense of injustice and looks to mom and dad to settle the score every other minute. We've taught her well in regard to her role (she's a good student): no hitting, no screaming, no yanking. We've said, come to mom and dad when there's a dispute. When peaceful overtures at conflict resolution have failed her, we've told her: give up, get Mom and Dad on your team. We'll handle it. For the most part, she does. (Now, I give myself enough credit to think that eventually we'd start to hand the reigns over to her and her younger sister to settle conflicts, assuming younger sister continues to develop a certain degree of reasonableness.)

But what would happen if right now, we let them go? Maybe someone would hit. (In fact, someone already has, although it was interesting to note how that hitting was provoked by the other child). This afternoon I tried out some new words with the girls: "I'm going to let you two work this out on your own. I'm sorry this is hard for you. By the way, if you continue to argue (I don't want to listen to it), I'm just goign to make this toy off limits to both of you. You'll have to figure out how to share." After a few minutes of absolute indignation and frustration, both girls rose to the occasion, self-regulating their "turns," verbalizing their process ("okay, i"m done. It's your turn!") and handing back said toy almost like a baton in a relay race.

I had to do very little, other than hold my ground. But the question looms: at what point would we intervene if a conflict heightened in intensity. What about violence that could ensue and escalate? The author of the book seems to think a little physical fighting and wrestling is perfectly fine, although she says if we're worried about anyone getting seriously hurt we should enroll in family counseling. So, say I'm gonna overlook a "hit". What message is that sending to the kid? Will she resort to worse violence the next time?

Obviously I haven't had enough experience to know how this will play out in my family, but these questions have been dovetailing with a meditation on the role of pastors in resolving congregational conflict between individuals. I recently heard a teaching a pastor gave on codependency, how sometimes as leaders we need to be brave enough to let people suffer the consequences of their own actions, to let things play out in situations, withhold from micromanaging, and correcting and speaking on behalf of every party there is a conflict with. When it comes to handling conflict in congregant relationships, however, does it in some ways mirror what Schafer is saying about children? Don't get involved? Don't work it out for them? The tension hidden in that answer is similiar to the one found in the mother-child situation: What about power dynamics? What if one party is bigger and stronger? In this case I"m not referring to physical abuse--but the potential tyranny of power in any social set up where one person is one-up on another. A bible study leader and a class participant. A Sunday School worker and the Sunday school director. At what point do you use your pastoral position to guide the discuss, to bring correction, rebuke, and discipline when the apparent "victim" lacks in power?

The model Jesus gave us for confronting offenses is a one-on-one chat.* But if and when the one-on-one doesn't go so well, we involve others. And in contemporary life, pastors seem to get involved the most. But what position is a pastor to take? Sometimes the crime is easy to identify. Sometimes the sin issues are ambiguous, hidden in murky water, beyond the grasp of language's identification--no different than a scene I may stumble upon in the aftermath of a squabble. Who took whose toys? Whose motives are pure, whose dark? Each pair of eyes looks up at me pleadingly, feigning innocence, broadcasting indignation.

Is this how King Solomon felt when the two women came to him, each claiming motherhood of an infant? How courageous (foolish? crazy?) to risk the life of the second infant in order to discern the truth of the situation. 1 Kings says the people saw Solomon had "wisdom from God to administer justice." The wisdom, in this case, did not involve him making a decision upon hearing the case. He introduced a new element, put both women in the same boat, so to speak. They would both lose if one of them didn't acquiesce to the other. He watched and he waited, and then the answer came.

* Alyson Schafer, Breaking the Good Mom Myth
*Matt 18:15

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