Three of my kids take piano lessons from the same teacher, so they take turns going first. They determined the order themselves several months ago. I thought it was all settled. It shouldn’t be difficult to maintain who goes first, second and third, right? At the start of a recent lesson, they argued. “You go first.” “I went first last week.” “No, you didn’t!” “Yes, I did!” The conflict escalated and intensified with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. It got so bad, the teacher had to call me in—I couldn’t believe I was refereeing a shouting match over who goes first for piano lessons! I resolved to end things abruptly by assigning an order. “Okay,” I began, pointing to them one-at-a-time. “You go. Then you. Then you. That’s it. No questions asked.” I started to go, then stopped and grumbled, “We’ll talk about this later.” I climbed into the car gnashing my own teeth.
I commiserated with Corinne of Trains, Tutus and Twizzlers when I read “Imperfect Days.” She said her day ended with her son saying, “I’m so sorry you yelled at me Mommy.” I also felt a connection with Spaghettipie, who survived four hours of “I’m tired, hungry, and grumpy but I don’t want to eat anything, do anything, or take a rest” and lived to write about it in her post “Oppressive Moments of Motherhood.” In their posts, both Corinne and Spaghettipie relate how they deal with the imperfect days and oppressive moments. Their approaches are far more uplifting and positive than mine.
Here’s how I followed up with the piano lesson shouting match. I launched: The Lecture. On the way home, I let the kids know exactly what I thought of their choices. I expressed my grave disappointment, insisting they write an apology to the teacher. I told the eldest of the three, our 14-year-old daughter, that I wished she had taken the lead—that the teacher is there to teach piano, not mediate a sibling dispute. I wished she had been a peacemaker and calmed down her eight-year-old little brother, even if she was right and he was wrong; even if it meant she went first two weeks in a row. It sounded good to me. I assumed that The Lecture would help.
In actuality, the kids probably heard the voice of one of the unintelligible teachers in a Charlie Brown cartoon while I carried on. The verse from Ephesians 6 (v. 4) “Fathers, do not exasperate your children” flashed through my head while I lectured, but I dismissed it. After all, the next part of that verse is “instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Hey, that’s what a lecture is all about, isn’t it? Training and instruction! The kids needed to know their behavior was unacceptable, I told myself. With that, I justified The Lecture.
Minutes following The Lecture, however, I opened up the classic Dale Carnegie book How to Win Friends and Influence People. I planned to share a few of his principles with the kids in the next few weeks as a way to improve people skills. The first chapter is on: Criticism. Carnegie pointed out that criticism puts a person on the defensive and usually causes her to justify herself or even criticize in return. People rarely admit when they are wrong. He said that Benjamin Franklin’s secret to becoming such a successful diplomat as Ambassador to France was this: “I will speak ill of no man…and speak all the good I know of everybody.” Kids need input and training. I think that’s part of my job—to train and prepare them as best I can for healthy relationships, for work, for faithfully following Christ, for doing a load of laundry without turning the whites pink. Basically, I’m trying to prepare them for life. To that end, they do need input. They do need feedback. Correction is appropriate. But when correction turns to criticism, anyone—kids and adults alike—can be left feeling misunderstood and defensive.
I wondered about The Lecture. Was it corrective or critical? What was in the heart of me, the critic? And how did it affect the heart of my daughter, the one being lectured? I decided to find out. “What were you thinking and feeling the other day,” I asked the 14-year-old, “when I lectured you after piano lessons?” She repeated a play-by-play of what led up to her brother’s weeping and gnashing. Then she concluded, “So I felt like I was getting lectured for something that wasn’t my fault.” She felt misunderstood and maybe a tad defensive. Perhaps The Lecture needs to turn into The Listening, as I seek the fine line between correction and criticism. If imperfect days lead to healthy, humble introspection, if I can find courage to model change in myself, maybe I can prepare them for life after all, freeing them to grow in grace.