You may have heard that the best prayers are “Help me, help me, help me.” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” While I love corporate prayer, the written words of our prayer book, and the extemporaneous prayers of my Baptist grandfather, it has been these two simple one-word prayers that have sustained me most in my sixteen years as a parent.
I still remember the moment I began to invoke them regularly.
Wylie, my eldest son, was almost 3 years old the night it happened. He had gotten in trouble for some small crime of childhood curiosity, and I had punished him by putting his favorite toy in time out, which of course broke his heart and bruised his small ego. I remember sitting on the edge of his bed later that night, trying my best to explain to him that while I was unhappy that he had disobeyed, I still loved him, and always would, no matter what.
In his sweet little boy way, he smiled, and returned my hugs and kisses, patting my back in tentative reassurance, as I tucked him in for the night. Closing his door, my heart sank. In that moment I realized that on the other side of the door, my precious boy, whom I loved with all my being, was quite possibly lying awake in his bed, deciding whether or not he believed me. And I worried which of my words had made the greatest impression – was he was thinking more about the fact that I had been unhappy, or about how much I loved him?
In that split second I realized that Wylie had the ability to internalize all my words and actions, and then form an opinion about those words and actions on his own. At three years of age he was no longer a baby. He was a child, no, a person! A person with a large vocabulary, a beginner’s ability to reason, plus his own thoughts, explanations, and interpretations for the way the universe around him worked. He had reached an age where his personal worldview was forming. There was now a world inside his head and his heart that would forever color how he interacted with the outside world – and me. And I knew in that moment, that no matter how many questions I asked, or how well I observed him, I would never be able to know all that went on in that wondrous, fast-moving, independent brain and heart of his.
My job description as a mother had changed. From here on out my job would be to guide, nurture, support, encourage, discipline and instruct him as he grew, but I would no longer be able (if I ever was) control what he believed. From that night on, I knew that Wylie would be the one deciding what he believed and what he didn’t.
He would decide if he believed that I loved him as I said. He would form his own beliefs about God, politics, love, education, and the world. He would decide if he thought our little family was cool or dorky, he would decide if he wanted to try harder or give up, be angry or forgiving, be open or shut down… I could do my best, but in the end, his own inner dialogue was going to continue to develop and I would be unable to control it.
Influence it? Yes. Hopefully for good, and not for bad.
Control it? Nope. No way.
The next morning I began my first shift as Mother-Sherpa. I began the process of parenting with eyes wide open – looking for all the little breadcrumb clues that might tell me why my children do what they do, what they are thinking, why they are afraid, or scared, or excited or nervous.
What it is that makes them tick, where it is that deep wound has sunk in below the surface, what unique tactics God is using to get their attention? Looking for the places where they needed me to push, encourage, step-back, fight, or let go. That day I began to walk the fine line between protecting my boys from too much (fill-in- the-blank) too soon and letting them go and grow as they should, into their own persons, separate from me. And that day I began to praying the only prayers I could think of to help me through the ever changing landscape of parenthood: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Because in the end, or rather really from the beginning, my children were never really mine. I am just a steward.
What prayer sustains you in parenthood?