May 21, 2016

The Test

This is a test.  Well, more of a pop-quiz, really, since you did not have time to prepare.  And even if you had known ahead of time, there really are no books that you could have reviewed.  No CliffsNotes to scan or study groups to attend or websites to research. 

So just jump right in and do the best you can.   Read the scenario carefully, and choose the best answer for each question.  When you are ready, or even if you aren’t, you may begin.

Imagine that your seven-year old son has been diagnosed with a life-threatening or terminal illness.  He has suffered from this condition since he was a baby, but somehow you thought he would have improved by now.  You assumed that with the appropriate medical treatment, and with the sheer power of your parental love, he would overcome his disease and thrive.  He would live happily ever after.

And yet in spite of the finest, most advanced medical technologies and the latest pharmaceuticals available, he continues to struggle.  He doesn’t improve.  He perpetually doesn’t feel well, is in almost constant pain.  You aren’t quite sure if this is from the illness itself or from the side effects of his ever-increasing stockpile of medication that he is required to take.  Side effects like insomnia, fatigue, irritability, insatiable hunger, unpredictable outbursts of rage, extreme mood swings.

It’s one thing to care for a medically-fragile baby; quite another thing altogether to parent/discipline/raise a child with chronic ongoing needs.

How do you find the balance between responsible, prudent parent and compassionate, merciful care-giver?  Between strict rules and occasional grace? 

How do you parent a child who suffers?

1.   You are at the store, the same one you frequent every week, and your son sees a bag of M&M’s just within his reach. Please, please can I have those, he begs, with his hands clasped tightly in front of him in the universal sign for pleading.

What do you do?
a.   Just say no.  Stand your ground.  You are the parent, older, wiser, more knowledgeable about his medical condition than he is.  You know he is on a very restricted diet, and every deviation, however slight, negatively affects his health.   Never mind that some day he will need to make his own decisions about his nutrition.  Today, he needs to listen to you.
b.   Try to explain, as gently as possible, for the thousandth time, why eating M&M’s would be detrimental to his health.  Use your voice of love and understanding and gentleness.  Sure, it’s difficult for a 7-year old to exercise caution and discernment when sugary treats are involved, but this is a good teaching opportunity you don’t want to miss.
c.    Give in and just let him have the M&M’s.  You are in a hurry, and you don’t have time for a lengthy discussion or potential tantrum.  It’s your fault, after all, that you didn’t give him a snack before you came.  You know that because of his medication, he is always hungry!  And anyways, he’s just a kid.  He can’t be expected to be deprived of everything.  All the time!  What’s wrong with an exception every once in a while?  What will it hurt to have a treat just this once?
d.   Offer him an alternative, something you try to convince him would be just as satisfying, but much less dangerous.  Chocolate-flavored rice cakes, maybe?  Frozen all-fruit pops?  Kind of like a negotiating with a terrorist.
2.   Your friend, probably the one friend you have left after all these years of declining social invitations because you are caring for your son’s incessant needs, has dropped by your house for a visit.  In a desperate attempt at a normal, healthy, life-giving, long-overdue conversation, you and your friend decide to take a quick walk around the block, leaving your well-qualified teenage daughter to keep an eye on the little ones at home.

Your son refuses to be left behind.  He follows you and your friend down the driveway, tears streaming down his face, grabbing desperately at your shirt.  Don’t leave, Mama!  Please, please Mama!  Don’t leave!

What do you do?
a.   Give in and ask your friend if she wouldn’t mind staying at your house after all.  Hopefully she will understand that after countless nights in a hospital room during his earliest years, alone and in ceaseless pain, your child is terrified of being abandoned.  Surely she would understand.
b.   Stand your ground.  Although he quite often needs your undivided attention, he simply must understand that you are more than just his care giver; you are a real person.  You feel deep compassion for his fear and wish he hadn’t endured those awful experiences, but at some point he needs to find confidence within himself.  He needs to stretch his courage and independence, even if only for brief periods.
c.    Try to explain to him, as gently as possible, that sometimes moms need to spend time with other moms.  That some conversations aren’t meant for little ears to hear.  Hold him close, look him in the eye, and use a soft, gentle voice.  Reassure him that he is safe, and that you will come back in just a few short minutes.
d.   Assume that his tears aren’t real.  That this is just another manipulative ploy to get your attention.  Threaten him with punishment for acting this way.  Just because constant anxiety rages through his amygdala, that’s no excuse for this abhorrent behavior.
e.   Ignore him and walk away, just praying that his loud crying in the driveway doesn’t motivate suspicious neighbors to call the police.  (It has happened before . . . true story!)
3.   And speaking of anxiety, he has yet another doctor’s appointment coming up in a few days.  More blood drawn, which is his worst nightmare.  Oh, how you wish you could protect him from the repeated trauma of being poked and prodded and stabbed and restrained!  But alas, you will be the one driving him there, the one forcing him to do the one thing he hates most in the world.

What do you do?
a.   Warn him well in advance, giving him enough time to talk to you about his fears.  To remind him that it will be over quickly. Time to assure him that you will be right there to comfort him. 
b.   Don’t tell him in advance.  He will only worry, and will not be able to sleep,  It will become the only thing he talks about and asks about.  When are we going?  How many more days?  What day is it today?  What car are we taking?  How long will we be there?  Endlessly.
4.   You are at the dreaded doctor’s appointment, and your son is terrified of getting his blood drawn.  He is flailing in full-blown panic, his eyes glazed over and unfocused.  His frantic screams can be heard down the hall.

What do you do?
a.   Try to be calm and doting, reminding him over and over again that you are right there, that he is ok, that it will only hurt for a minute.  Ignore getting kicked in your shins and elbowed in your breast and punched in your nose; at all costs he needs to feel protected and secure, and you, his trusted parent, are the only person for the job.  
b.   Try to distract him with the guarantee of cheap toys from the hospital’s treasure box, although as he gets older, that becomes less and less enticing.  Or with the promise of beloved M&M’s, ignoring the damaging consequences.  Or with extra time on your iPad.  It’s okay to bribe a child in certain circumstances, right?
c.    Who are you kidding?  He doesn’t need incentives.  Firmly remind him that he is 7, and 7-year olds are brave and strong.  7-year olds don’t cry.  He has done this hundreds of times before (literally!), so he should just suck it up and be a man already.
5.   He says he doesn’t feel well, and lies down on the floor in the middle of the room, groaning and holding his tummy. It hurts, he moans in misery.  The timing, however, is less than ideal.  It just happens to be time to clean his room or do his school work or set the table for dinner.

What do you do?
a.   Assume that he truly isn’t feeling well.  “Chronic” illness means just that:  constant, life-long, no cure in the foreseeable future.  Or maybe he is just incredibly tired from never (never!) getting a full night’s sleep.  Out of compassion for him, offer grace and excuse him from his chores.  After all, who wants to work when they are in persistent pain?  Or perpetually exhausted?
b.   Assume that he is exaggerating his misery, using it as a way to manipulate you and garner sympathy.  Insist that he get up off the floor and obey.  How else is he going to learn to be responsible?  And besides, since when is a physical illness an excuse for sin?
6.   He gets invited to a friend’s birthday party.  What do you do?
a.   Great!  He has a friend, an answer to your prayers for this child you love so much!  Because of his ongoing health problems, he has had to give up school and extra-curricular activities and sports and Sunday School with children his own age.  He has missed out on so many wonderful childhood experiences.  You want to make socialization a priority.  Of course you will let him go.
b.   No way!  Parties mean kids and potentially lethal germs!  One kid’s minor sniffles could land your son in the hospital for weeks.  You must make his physical health your top priority.  You simply can’t risk it.
c.    He can go to the party, but make sure he wears a surgical mask to protect him from potential germs.  Because yeah, every kid wants to be the one at the party getting teased for being different.
This concludes today’s test.  And guess what?  Regardless of the reactions you chose, there are no wrong answers.  Every situation will be different, each circumstance handled in various ways, each parent making individual decisions and opting for diverse priorities.  And you may make one choice today and a completely different one tomorrow.
On the other hand, there are not necessarily any right answers either.  Every time you choose compassion and grace, you wonder if you are really just being weak.  If maybe you have missed a vital training opportunity in which his character might have been developed.  You wonder if you are properly preparing him to be a godly young man?  (And please God, let him make it to adulthood!)  Are you adequately following the Biblical command to “train up a child in the way he should go?”
But then again, every time you choose to be firm and strong, you second-guess yourself, wondering if you made the right decision.  If you showed enough mercy and tenderness, remembering the insurmountable difficulties he faces every single day.  In the big scheme of things, if this terrible disease ends up taking his life prematurely, who cares if he did his chores or finished his homework or ate an M&M or two?  Isn’t it more important for him to know, every single day, that you love him to the moon and back?
Actually, there is one more question on this test, which is undoubtedly the most important one of all . . .

Extra credit:  With every new challenge, with every judgment call filled with doubt, every pathetic lack of wisdom, what do you do?

a.   Blame yourself.  Wallow in guilt for being so woefully inadequate.  Clearly you don’t have enough wisdom or endurance or qualifications for this task.  Every decision, every interaction with your son fills you with uncertainty or guilt or anxiety that you probably should have handled it better.  You wonder, God, are you sure you picked the right person to be his parent?  I really don’t know what the heck I’m doing here!
b.   Believe.

Consider it all joy my brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. – James 1:2-4

This is not a test of your parenting skills.  Or your creative problem-solving.  Or your perfect patience or wise discernment or unending stamina or exemplary virtues or stellar accomplishments. 

It is a test of your faith. 

Faith to believe that this is His story, and that, despite your frequent mistakes, He will accomplish His purposes, both in your child’s life and in yours.  To believe, with confident expectation, with unwavering hope, in His sufficiency.  In His unfailing goodness.  In His bountiful love.  In His promise to generously give wisdom, without reproach, to those who seek it.  (James 1:5)

Sure, your faith may falter at times.  There most likely will be moments of doubt when you are barely hanging on to the tiniest thread of hope.  When you humbly admit that parenting this child is the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life.  When his tears inspire you to extend grace, only to find out he had been using them to manipulate you.  When you stand firm and send him to his room for not obeying, only to find him sound asleep, exhausted.  When that one exception to his restricted diet turns into abnormal test results or worse, a trip to the emergency room. 

Even then, press on.  Persevere.  When your faith fluctuates, painfully insufficient, the God who called you to this path will give you the faith you need.*  He is the One who will always be with you.  The one who promises to provide strength and wisdom for each new test.  You see . . .

This is not a test to prove if YOU are capable enough. 
It is an opportunity to believe – once again – that HE is.

*      For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8)  Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2).

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