Asking nicely (don't tip the ship)
(During a reading of the story of Jonah)
Me: (Reading from a children's story Bible) “God sent a strong wind that tossed the ship to and fro....”
5 yo: Why was God trying to tip the ship?
Me: Well, maybe he was trying to get Jonah's attention? Remember that Jonah didn't listen the first time God asked him to go to Nineveh.
7 yo: God could have asked nicely, he didn't have to try to tip the ship.
Me: God did ask Jonah in the beginning but Jonah didn't listen.
7 yo: Well, God still should have asked nicely.
Me: Good point.
I confess that I do not always ask nicely when I make requests of my children. Maybe it's because I came from a family where yelling was commonplace. Maybe it's because I need to work on my patience. Maybe it's because I have spent 14 months straight with my children, proctoring Zoom school and activities, and the longest break I've had from them was the 11 hours I spent at a birth center this spring delivering my third child. Regardless, it's true that I don't always ask nicely. I yell. I nag. I regret it later.
I know I'm not alone. Parenting tests everyone's patience, particularly during a pandemic. Most of us yell sometimes, or phrase requests in a way that we wouldn't to, say, our bosses, or other adults. I read in this parenting book that the commands we bark to our children, especially repetitively, (guilty) are less effective. The authors suggest instead of yelling "Pick up those socks!" that a parent try describing the problem and provide information. Such as: "I see your socks on the floor." And possibly, "Socks that are in the laundry basket will get washed." The theory is that when a parent describes a problem and gives info, it gives children the chance to tell themselves what to do, fostering autonomy and independence. Please note this technique is easier said than done!
Frustrated at my kids and myself this week, I tried this yesterday. My 5 yo picked up his jacket without protest. Later, he wouldn't sit still during story time so I said, "Butts are for sitting on!" and we both laughed and he calmed down to listen. I'm sure this won't work every time, but it felt good not to nag.
How we speak to our children and how we discipline them can tell us something about how we view God, especially since God is often called our heavenly parent. Side note: For those who have painful experiences with parents, calling God a parent can be fraught. A seminary professor used to say, "Tell me who you think God is, and I'll tell you who you are." Is God the vengeful parent, waiting for us to mess up so we can be punished? Is God's love so permissive that anything goes? Is there something in between?
I'm not an expert on parenting or on God, but I think of God-the-parent and me-the-parent as somewhere in the free space between authoritarian and permissive, extremes that describe parenting styles. The in-between space is called authoritative, a warm, supportive parenting style that still has clear boundaries and expectations. I'm sure that says something about me that I see God like that, too. God is love, first and always, but love doesn't mean you get to be a jerk to everyone else.
So, how could God have asked Jonah in a different or more effective way that didn't involve getting swallowed by a large sea creature? Good question! In retrospect, I wished I'd asked my kids what they thought. What would have been a better way to get Jonah to go to Nineveh? What else could God have said or done? What would you have tried if you were God? How could Jonah see himself as a partner in the whole situation, rather than a pawn?
I'm not faulting God for God's "parenting approach" with Jonah. What is written is written, but we still get to engage with it. There is a rabbinical tradition of playing with the scriptures and even arguing with them, not to be disrespectful to God but to wrestle with the word and see how Scripture stories come alive for us. It's even okay if we decide we don't like a particular Bible story or passage in Scripture. Our discomfort or anger or disagreement are okay. God can handle it. Like the very best authoritative parent, God's love creates a wide and warm space for all of us. Yet the expectation still exists that we work hard- maybe harder than we think - at how we talk to each other.