Monday, February 18, 2013

Cause and effect

Deuteronomy 8:10-18 (NIV)

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
In the last few days, Jack has had a crash course lesson in cause and effect. Not that we haven’t tried to impart such wisdom earlier, of course, but it really seemed to crystallize in the last 30 hours or so.

On Sunday, Jack got to go to my parents’ house after church. The rest of us came back down late in the afternoon for dinner. Near the end of the evening, Jack was getting dessert. I was walking through the house and noticed the light on in the office, which was empty, so I flipped it off. I thought nothing of it.

(Our children leave lights on and toilets unflushed wherever they go. If I charged them a quarter for every switch flipped and handle pushed I could outsource the job to someone who would do it for a dime and we’d both be able to retire early.)

Jack, on the other hand, thought a lot of it. Turns out he was headed back into the office with a bowl of ice cream. But instead of saying, “Dad, I’m going back in there!” or even “Hey!” he just grunted, put his ice cream down and stomped off into the basement. I turned the light back on for him and told him so, but it was no use. He pouted the rest of the time we were there, strongly resisted leaving, carried his sour attitude home and gave us a bunch of trouble about getting in the shower. En route to being forced to brush his teeth, he said a few choice words that cost him his screen time privileges for a week.

Yet through it all, Jack maintained the entire ordeal was my fault because I was the one who turned off the light. He refused to take ownership of anything — not a pattern of leaving lights on in vacant rooms all over the house, not refusing to explain his displeasure, not coming out of his funk in time to eat his dessert, not dragging his feet on the shower, not saying things he’d been warned not to say just a day before, nothing. By his logic, my one innocent mistake not only ruined his entire weekend but also gave him license to respond in the worst possible way.

I calmly explained to him, and later wrote out, how it was his decision to react poorly that led down the path of disappointment. I can admit making a mistake, but I’m not going to let him think another person’s error is a free ticket for him to carry on so rudely without repercussion. I’m sure my words fell on deaf ears and blind eyes, but I have got to keep trying to get through here. The world is going to forgive us all a fair amount of transgressions. But I’ve not met a successful adult who wasn’t willing to take at least a little blame when everyone can see where the fault lies.

His next lesson in cause and effect was a bit more practical. It came this afternoon at the dentist’s office, where he blatantly lied in answer to the “have you been brushing every day?” question. His response of “I missed a day or two” rang false the second the dentist saw the orange plaque on his lower teeth. As the dentist scraped away, Jack clenched his fists, tensed his legs and whined. Max, who had begged to come, said to me, under his breath, “is this really how Jack behaves at the dentist?” The dentist joined me in another calm explanation: If you really do brush your teeth every day, then you won’t be subject to all the scraping. Again, deaf ears I’m sure, but at least he didn’t have any cavities this time.

We had another kerfuffle right before bedtime tonight. Long story short, Jack was playing with a Charlie-sized toy. Charlie took exception and reacted the way two-year-olds do, and then Jack reacted the way two-year-olds do as well, which is not the desired outcome for someone who is almost nine. As all three kids got sent off to bed, Jack again tried to place the blame anywhere but on himself. He insisted he had a right to be angry.

You do have a right to be angry, I assured him, because he was right about that. He was playing with the toy first and, while he could have shared, he did not blatantly ask for Charlie to get mad at him. However, it is how he displayed that anger that led to the problem. Feel free to be angry, but don’t respond with immaturity and dangerous behavior. We keep reminding him if he doesn’t care for the punishments he should consider not causing the infractions in the first place. Yet his energy remains dedicated to explaining why he’s never at fault.

I’m in my early thirties and I’m sure I don’t always link cause and effect as well as I should. As good as I am in recognizing this (and other) shortcomings in my kids, I can be equally unable to identify them in myself. So while I will keep plugging away at trying to break through to Jack (some day he’ll understand it, or at least stop denying it, right?), I might also be well off to turn more of the focus inward to make sure I’m not overlooking my own giant stumbling blocks.

A prayer for February 18:

Lord, help me to pay more attention to the lessons I refuse to learn. It is wonderful to feel I might be growing and changing for the better, but I realize I’m probably overlooking certain mistakes I make so often I’ve almost assumed they’re part of the scenery. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Because of your power and your love, I have the ability to address all my challenges. You give me what I need to overcome. Be patient with me God, for I may be slow to adapt. But I want to make myself a better person, more worthy of you. Don’t ever give up on me. Amen.

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