A Lesson In Motivating My Boy Child To Choose The Good
In the three minutes we had been sitting in our church pew, Christopher, my five-year old, had managed the following:
- He “accidentally” tore several pages of the green Gather hymnal,
- He took off his brown leather school shoes and tossed them under the pew (revealing large holes in the big toes of his socks),
- He then retrieved the scattered shoes by army crawling under the bench, unintentionally smashing the ankles of the lady sitting in front of us,
- He initiated the long, arduous and loud process of putting his shoes back on his feet,
- And he re-enacted an audible toyless version of a Thomas The Train episode with his hands.
To be fair, Christopher’s antsy antics weren’t entirely his fault. We had just asked him to stand in line for an hour while we waited for an open confessional and now we were asking him to sit still for another sixty minutes for the Vigil Mass. His meter for good behavior in church had long expired.
At first, I asked nicely. “Son, please be quiet. Now is your time to talk to Jesus.”
His response? To simulate automobile sound effects which culminated in loud crashes and bomb explosions and rapid hand motions of all kinds.
When my niceties didn’t work, I upped my game.
“Topher,” I said, using my favorite nickname for him, “You will not be able to watch the family movie with us tonight, nor will you get any popcorn or candy if you don’t behave. You must be quiet or you will lose all fun privileges.”
This warning elicited from him more of the same—sound effects rivaling the soundtrack of a Dukes of Hazard episode.
But when he leaned over and flat out said, “I don’t want to say my prayers. I want to go home. Is this over yet?” I knew I was going to need divine intervention to make it through.
Composing myself on the kneeler, I closed my eyes and said a small prayer asking God to help me deal with the energetic child beside me. I was only quiet a moment before an idea came. I got up from the kneeler, pulled Christopher back to me by his legs (he was stealthily army crawling again but this time down the pew, not under it) and I tried a new tactic.
“Topher,” I said, “I forgot to tell you that I noticed a whole bunch of dragons as I walked into Mass. Did you see them too?” I asked him.
He fixed his brown eyes on the altar, his back rod iron straight as he listened to what I had just told him. He blinked, considering my words, and turned his head to look at me.
I had his attention.
“Here’s what I’m going to do,” I said. “Every few minutes I’m going to tell you how many dragons you slayed because of your good behavior. I want to see how many you can kill. We need you to protect us with your quiet prayer. Can you do that for me?”
He turned his head from the altar to me, still wide eyed, and blinked his long lashes. A grin spread across his face.
“I have my sword right here,” he answered and pointed to his back where an imaginary weapon was secured.
Every few minutes for the rest of Mass, I spoke softly in his ear.
“Did you see that one? It was huge! You are so brave. Thank you for protecting me!”
When he started to lose his concentration and began wiggling and making loud sounds, I whispered, “Oh no, Toph! I need you! Three dragons just got into the church. You’ve got to kill them!”
By the end of Mass, Christopher had successfully maimed twenty-eight dragons and had maintained almost perfect behavior.
Before you think I’m a parenting expert, I stole the dragon slayer thing from my husband—who really is an expert. And lest you think I have all a bag full of tricks I pull out to motivate five-year old boys, I’ll tell you right now that even after six kids, I’m grasping at straws.
I will tell you on this particular day, I knew I had two options:
- Issue ineffective threats and warnings for sixty minutes straight, or
- Be creative and motivate Christopher to kill imaginary dragons.
I had just been to confession, so I went with the dragon slayer thing.
The entire drive home, I gushed about Christopher’s stalwart bravery. Buckled securely into his car seat, his little chest swelled with pride and he tried to hide a smile.
“Yeah,” he said, “I like to be brave.”
Ever since that day in church, both my husband and I have encouraged Christopher to slay dragons on an hourly basis: when he doesn’t want to clean his room, or brush his teeth, or get his pajamas on, or practice his reading. For every obstinate “No!” he offers, I say, “Wait! I thought you were a courageous dragon slayer!”
The idea he might not be a boy-warrior combating deadly beasts motivates him and he almost immediately does what I am asking him.
Parenting Christopher has helped me realize the deep desire young boys possess to fight noble battles and pursue great adventures. It’s hardwired into their DNA—this dream of being a soldier in search of death worthy conquests. When I appeal to this innate desire, my son is motivated to do the right thing.
“Christopher, do you want to choose disobedience?” I question him. “Or do you want to kill that fire breathing dragon clawing at your neck? Do you want to be a hero?”
He nods and answers me differently than I expect.
“I am a hero,” he says as he hops of his bed to pick up the 986 matchbox cars from the floor.
Christopher is fighting small battles now—the battle to listen and obey when John and I ask him to pick up his room, the battle to go to sleep when I tell him, and the battle to be kind to his sister even though she stole his favorite truck.
But one day?
One day Christopher is going to have to fight even bigger dragons: the battle to resist cultural pressures like fame, power and prestige as well as the battle to resist his own desires like lust and greed and gluttony. I want Christopher to know that he has the power to resist because he follows the Warrior King. I want him to know he doesn’t have to give in to worldly pressures or personal temptations because Christ, the best Dragon Slayer of them all, is his guide.
Thomas a‘ Kempis wrote, “If we would endeavor, like men of courage, to stand in the battle, surely we would feel the favorable assistance of God from Heaven. For he who giveth us occasion to fight, to the end we may get the victory, is ready to succor those that fight manfully, and do trust in his grace.”
If Christopher is going to fight against the Herodian pleasures of the world today, he will need the assistance of God and a fortified will. He will need to know that though he might be maimed, Christ will always be there, willing to help, console, and guide Christopher in his journey. He must also recognize that his real strength comes not from himself, but from the Lord. This is what St. Paul is talking about when he says:
“Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:11-17).
Christopher needs to know the darkness doesn’t have to win and he is not putty in the hands of evil. Rather, he is a valiant soldier in the fight against the wicked and he been placed on the winning team. Like St. Paul reminds us, he must never forget his protective armor—the truth and righteousness and peace of God—and he must decide daily to battle evil and choose the good. Only Christopher can decide to engage in the fight, but I will stay on my knees begging God to give him the grace to always have the courage to slay those deadly dragons.
To understand more about the deep desire men and boys have to be heroes in search of noble battles, I recommend John Eldredge’s excellent book Wild At Heart: Discovering the Secret of A Man’s Soul.