Subscribe via RSS Feed


February 2, AD 2012 8 Comments

Recently, our house has been ringing with the wails of a 3-year-old girl. Morning, afternoon, and evening, Charlotte can usually be found sitting in a corner somewhere, inexplicably screaming at 90 decibels despite having both fists shoved into her mouth.

The cause of poor Charlotte’s distress has been our eternal engagement in the Epic Battle to Pick Up.

Charlotte is so different than her older sister. Sienna only needs good enough incentive to pick up. She always has. At the age of three she could pick up her toys in ten minutes flat if there was a cookie in her future. Granted, the toys would generally be shoved haphazardly under her bed, but the living room was clear and that was good enough for me. As she grew I learned to be careful, because if her incentive is too good she’ll just throw everything in a closet and shut the door, but if it’s not good enough she’ll meander around the house for hours, “picking up.” Charlotte, on the other hand, sticks to the same routine no  matter what the incentive. I’ll say, “Charlotte, pick up the toys in the living room” and she’ll say, “But it’s hard for me.” And then she’ll stand perfectly still in the middle of the living room until I threaten her with the loss of something, at which point she’ll stuff her hands in her mouth, fall into a corner, and commence wailing.

I have to admit that this routine has actually worked out pretty well for her. Her wails grow increasingly louder in direct correlation to the severity of my threats and tone, until finally I just send her to her room where she plays happily while her sister picks up everything. Then when the threats come due, the wailing begins again. She’s missed quite a few afternoon popsicles and outdoor play-times, but she’s also never actually done any substantial picking up.

For a few weeks now, my husband has been patiently observing my growing state of agitation and quietly making suggestions — no, the same suggestion. “Tell her what to do,” he’ll say, as Charlotte screams in the corner and I bark at her to pick up ALL the shoes.

“I am!” I snap back.

“No, one at a time. Tell her to pick up that red shoe and put it away. Then when she comes back, tell her to pick up the other red shoe and put it away,” he says.

I’ve been responding with some variation of “I don’t have time for that” or “we never had to do that with Sienna,” both of which are perfectly horrid excuses that I nevertheless keep handy in my cache of “knee-jerk Mommy responses.” After all, their picking-up time is also my picking up time! I have laundry to fold, dishes to wash, floors to sweep, orphan socks to find matches for, and dinner to prep! I don’t have time to stop all of my work and walk a three-year-old through an incredibly simple task. I just don’t.

Today was no exception. I had three loads of laundry to fold, a dishwasher to empty, a bathroom to clean, and all the while Charlotte sat in the corner, wailing around her chubby fists. I tried to pass the buck off to the six-year-old, saying, “Sienna, why don’t you show Charlotte which toy to pick up and where it goes?” as if Charlotte had somehow forgotten where she got every toy in the house every morning. When this stellar plan resulted in Charlotte miraculously removing her fists from her mouth and aiming them furiously at Sienna’s face, I hastily intervened.

I sat down with Charlotte and took her face in my hands. Her eyes were swollen from days of crying, her cheeks were red and blotchy, her hair was matted to her face with a combination of tears and snot, and her lips were quivering. She looked at me and her eyes held this heart-breaking combination of self-pity and despair.

I had been planning on telling her that if she didn’t pick up RIGHT NOW, she wouldn’t be able to play outside with her sister. But I looked at my child and couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t bear to spend one more afternoon watching her press her face against the window and cry, longing to join her sister outside. I couldn’t bear to watch her slumped in a corner, wailing in defeat about a task she hadn’t even attempted. All the parenting ideals about “holding the line” and “following through” vanished, and at that moment I knew that my daughter didn’t need justice. She needed mercy.

So I set my own work aside and helped her. I pointed out, one by one, the shoes that needed to be picked up. I told her where to put each one in her closet. We did the same with the toys and the books. And finally we were finished. She had picked up. We went for a walk, and when we came home she asked to play outside with Sienna until dinnertime. I said, “of course, Charlotte, but first can you put all the stuffed animals back on your bed?” It was a condition of our walk, made earlier, but I asked it instead of ordering it. In truth, I was dreading it. Charlotte had never picked up the stuffed animals. She had always wailed that it was “too hard.” And the few times she had made an effort, a quarter of them ended up piled messily on the bed before she dissolved into tears.

But this time she agreed cheerfully. Ten minutes later I walked into her room to find the animals arranged neatly and cleverly around the room. Some sat on the bed, some on the floor. One was in the miniature cradle and one big hippo sat in the little rocking chair with a baby doll on his lap.

I couldn’t believe it. She was so proud of herself and so happy to show me her work that she almost forgot about going outside. I had to remind her before she put on her shoes and ran out the door.

This evening I sat down to look up confession times at our new parish. I’ve been dreading going to confession, not really because of the sins I have to confess, but because once I confess them I have to actually begin rooting them out once again. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to because I’ll fail, because it’s painful, and because it’s hard for me.

I put my head down on the desk and felt a familiar, creeping surge of self-pity and despair. Then I remembered the way I felt when I looked into my child’s eyes and saw those same emotions. I wanted to help her, not to condemn her. I wanted her to succeed, not to fail. I felt only love for her.

I don’t often think of God as my Father. My Lord, certainly. The One who rules over me. The One to whom I am bound. But Father? God seems too distant for that. Too majestic. Too inaccessible. Too perfect, and to be honest, too exacting.

It wasn’t an accident, though, the chain of events that transpired in our house today. It wasn’t an accident that I was given the grace to see beyond myself and recognize a child in need of love and mercy. It wasn’t an accident that that very grace came on a day in which I was so in need of love and mercy myself. And it wasn’t an accident that the evening played out in such a way that when I put my head down on my desk I was despairing of my own sins while simultaneously reviewing my day to find something to post about.

And it wasn’t an accident that I found it.





Filed in: Columnists, Family, Prayer

About the Author:

  • “I’ve been dreading going to confession, not really because of the sins I have to confess, but because once I confess them I have to actually begin rooting them out once again. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to because I’ll fail, because it’s painful, and because it’s hard for me.”

    Lately, I have realized this is why I dread going to confession, too. And since I have a 2nd grader who just received absolution for the first (and second time…in 10 days, no less) I have gone to confession and reflected on it much more in recent months. I agree, it’s difficult to see God as our Father. But what a blessing when we get that glimpse.

    Also, I have a 3-year-old who does the same thing. But I was thinking it was b ecause he is a boy, because my girls (three, older) never acted like that. I’m glad to know it’s most likely a temperament thing…or perhaps a parenting thing and not a gender thing. 😉

  • Calah,

    As always, I thoroughly enjoyed your post. As I was reading it I began to look around at all the toys and paper airplanes decorating my own floors and decided that today I am going to try mercy instead of justice. Thank you for the much needed prompt to change course and imitate God’s ways. Let’s hope the kids respond as grateful penitents and cooperate with grace.


  • Karen

    This is wonderful. And such a good reminder for me, with my children, to make their tasks accessible and to help them learn. Lately I made a vow to be cheerful and kind each day, even when my children disappoint me, and our days have been so. much. better. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I’m enjoying this grace while I’ve got it! I loved how Charlotte arranged her animals, with such imagination, and that you didn’t stick to, “But i told you to put them on your bed!” but admired her work. You’re a good mom.

  • SWP

    I’ve had to put myself in check a few times like you did when dealing with my toddler. You have to pick your battles.

  • Beautiful Calah. Thank you for this!

  • Ah, my third is like this. I learn more than he does, I swear, during our “sessions”. And when they’re at the age that they ought to be doing chores but it would be faster if we just did them ourselves? It really is so hard to follow through with what we know is Good even if it isn’t easier. Man. God sure knows how to make every step of life a learning experience!

  • So well said. I think I needed to hear this. I have a similar dynamic with my first two – my oldest is a pleaser, and fairly compliant. He doesn’t need much prompting to do what he’s asked. My second son, however, seems to be the polar opposite of his brother in just about every way imaginable. Sometimes I think I err on the side of “justice” (or what I think is justice at the time) because I have this notion that if I “give him an inch,” they will turn into spoiled little monsters. But sometimes he probably does need mercy more. And that doesn’t mean I’m giving in and teaching him a bad habit – maybe it means finding a way to instill a good one, just in a different way.

  • I loved this story! Sometimes I too feel like standing in a room crying that it’s “too hard” to clean up the messiness of my heart. But in the end I am just like your daughter, looking out the window at the things I want to be doing and the person I want to be, instead of being and doing them myself. Today I will try to remember God looks at me with mercy, and wants me to succeed. Thanks for sharing!