Practicing with Children

Sounds of Grace and Expectation

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by Bromleigh McCleneghan

I have a “mean mommy voice.”

My own children have known this for years, known that I have only a given amount of tolerance for bedtime procrastination, known that I only like to ask them to do something six or seven hundred million times before I raise my voice in frustration.

I try to be patient; I try not to speak harshly with them, even when I’m angry. I yell sometimes, but I try desperately never to be cruel.

I do not, though, hesitate to let them know when lines have been crossed, when I do not approve of their behavior. I do not flinch, with my heart of my stone, when my girls tell me I am the meanest of mommies. I marvel when, as happened yesterday night, my oldest continues her bedtime tirade (on a school night, I had dared to suggest she might go to bed) and moves to threats: I am never speaking to you and Daddy again. 

Perhaps her threat would be more convincing if she subsequently ceased speaking.

Though I make no secret of the existence of my mean mommy voice, apparently it came as a surprise to some of the kids in our children’s choir a few weeks ago. They were singing in a pretty logistically involved interfaith concert, and when I walked into the room where they were waiting for their director, I discovered, well, a room full of wound up elementary school kids.

They weren’t being bad per se. Noisy, but not necessarily mean or obnoxious. Still, my eyes zeroed in on a group that was stomping all over the nice meditation cushions. With their shoes on.

Maybe they were playing “stay off the lava” and using the cushions as stepping stones. Whatever.

They shouldn’t have been stomping on the nice meditation cushions that didn’t belong to them. They’ve used those cushions before, for sharing and story times in Sunday School. No claiming ignorance of the law.

“Ladies! Gentlemen!”

I learned this from my mother, a high school teacher. Even in the address, you’re setting expectations.

I respect you, and so I expect better.

“We do not stomp on the cushions, especially not with our shoes on!”

“You know better than that. People use those for praying.”

I apparently delivered these admonitions in a tone that some of the kids recognized, because they later reported it to their parents with surprise: “Bromleigh has a mean mommy voice!”

I want my kids – my own, and those I minister to and with – to know that I love them unconditionally. I want them to know grace, to know that they are accepted, loved and welcomed as they are, whoever they are. The hyper ones, the creative ones, the darling ones, the confounding ones.   I want them to experience church community as a safe place, fun and engaging.

But I also don’t want them to stomp on the meditation cushions with their shoes on.

We’ve all known (I think), faith communities where people, needing and longing for grace, bring their emotional garbage and their manipulative behavior, and lay it at the feet of their brothers and sisters, expecting them to accept it under the guise of unconditional, agape love.

Whether their mommies and daddies were always mean to them or never raised their voices, somehow those folks ended up misunderstanding the nature of Christian community, and the nature of grace.   I have always loved the Anne Lamott line about how grace “meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

The love of God, and the love I aspire to give as a parent and a pastor, is warm and all-encompassing and gives the benefit of the doubt. But it is not without expectation. Expectation and hope that the recipient of love will respond to grace offered, will grow in love, too. Will be a better listener, not because she bows to unquestioned authority but because she respects the wisdom of her parent that bedtime is, in fact, fully in order. The kid who is well loved should not be expected to always know or remember or resist the temptation to stomp on the meditation cushions with his shoes on, but will hear from the adults around him that something different is expected.

Lamott also writes, “you can either practice being right or practice being kind,” and I confess, I struggle to remember that when I’m correcting my kids or those in my care. Am I raising my voice to impress upon them my authority, to insist on my way, or because it’s really not kind to them (or anyone they may encounter in the future) for them to go along thinking that some banally anti-social behavior is acceptable? I try to make sure, before I morph into Mean Mommy, that they’re actually being naughty, treating each other badly, and not just pushing my buttons.

My kids usually forgive me by the morning, as I have forgiven them. We start each day anew, with new mercies to see. The kids who reported the appearance of my mean mommy voice to their mother, who subsequently reported it to me, were surprised, but they were also impressed. My chastisement showed them that I take their presence seriously enough – they are important enough – to warrant teaching them a better way to be in community.

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One thought on “Sounds of Grace and Expectation

  1. Mean mommy voices are necessary and more are needed. Bravo Bromleigh! Asserting authority does not diminish being kind. I’m often that mean mommy not because I want to be but because I see someone that needs to be taught with immediate urgency to be respectful of other’s property, personal space, safety, acceptable boundaries, etc. And for some reason these days I regularly encounter parents who don’t want to be the bad guy. So I get called upon to shoulder their unwanted burden.
    Unfortunately, the mean mommy persona or image is an inevitable part of being a parent. You can’t be liked all the time and carry the lofty responsibility of parent or caregiver. But as Bromleigh said, you can handle these teachable moments with love, grace and respect all while maintaining a commanding presence. And I appreciate and applaud all the parents, teachers and caregivers who graciously accept the call to be the occasional “meanie” for the sake of improving the next generation with one purposeful, well-intentioned lesson at a time.

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