Our sons are close in age. They are also great friends. Both boys enjoy playing together, and no game seems complete without the other. At the same time, our 9-year-old son Matthew has a tendency to tease his brother, and a “mean streak” shows up at times which leads to hurt feelings and tears. Despite my numerous attempts to encourage Matthew to be kind to his brother, nothing has resulted in a consistent change in his behavior.
Just the other morning, Andrew again approached me in tears. “Mommy, Matthew’s being mean to me again!” I felt frustrated by this news and fairly clueless about what else to try! I comforted Andrew while I silently surrendered my anger and frustration to Jesus over Matthew’s meanness. “This behavior is telling a story, Lord, but what?” I asked. As I continued the dialogue with Jesus, the first thought that came to me was that Matthew does not respond well when I am frustrated with him; in fact, he tends to shut down. I needed to try a new approach using sadness instead of anger. I remembered Jim Wilder teaching me that sadness is “the brain’s way out of anger,” so I took some deep breaths and calmed myself down. Then I reflected on how sad I felt that someone I love was being mean to someone else I love.
I searched for Matthew, and once I found him, I asked if we could chat. At this point the tears were flowing from my eyes. I expressed to Matthew that I felt sad, and I did not know what to do. I shared that I love him and I love Andrew, so when he hurts Andrew, I don’t know what to do about the situation. I then asked Matthew if he enjoyed making Andrew cry. Matthew emphatically said “No, Mommy!” I affirmed to Matthew that he is a kind boy, and it is not like him to be mean to his brother. “This is not a good reflection of who you are!” I said. I then asked why he is mean to Andrew if he does not enjoy seeing his brother cry. Matthew responded that he wasn’t sure why he did this.
At this point I invited Matthew to sit on my lap, and I suggested we talk to Jesus about this problem. I asked him to start by thinking about the last time he was aware Jesus was near him. At first, he couldn’t think of a moment, so we asked Jesus to remind him. At this point he quickly thought of the previous evening when he was feeling afraid, and he prayed, then felt Jesus’ peace.
Next, I encouraged my son to ask Jesus why he is mean to his brother. Initially, he was quiet and didn’t answer. Then he started talking about a little boy at camp who was being mean to him. The boy was throwing sand at Matthew, cutting in front of him in line, and calling him mean names. Matthew said the little boy was kind to everyone else, but he seemed to be targeting him. I held him then cried with him about how awful it feels to have someone targeting and picking on him. Once he calmed down, I pointed out that this is what he is doing to Andrew. Matthew is kind toward others, but becomes mean to Andrew. Matthew was startled at the thought that he was making Andrew feel the way this little boy at camp made him feel.
Matthew started to become restless, so we took a break and did other things for a few minutes. After a break, we came back together to continue our conversation with Jesus about this problem. This time, Matthew told Jesus he did not want to be mean to his brother. He asked Jesus to help him understand what was happening that made him act this way. In a brief moment, Matthew turned to me and said, “Jesus says it is when I am mad that I am mean to Andrew!” We talked about this, then I asked if, in these moments, Matthew feels like he is in relational mode (Relational Circuits on), and Matthew responded that his RCs are usually off when he feels angry.
We talked more about this observation that when Matthew’s RCs are off, he slips into enemy mode and becomes mean to his brother. We brainstormed a bit about how he could work to get his RCs back on when they start to go off before he starts acting in a mean way towards his brother. Later that day, the boys were riding their scooters in the driveway. Matthew was following Andrew closely after Andrew asked him several times to back off. Finally, Andrew yelled, “Stop it!” to Matthew.
I pulled Matthew aside and asked if his RCs were on. He said, “Yes,” and I pointed out that he was upsetting his brother. I wondered if he knew why, since his RCs were on. Matthew had no idea, so we paused for a moment to ask Jesus why Matthew wasn’t stopping. After a short moment, Matthew turned to me and said, “Jesus says I wasn’t listening.” With Matthew’s busy ADD brain, this can be a common occurrence. When Matthew realized he failed to listen to his brother, he approached Andrew and apologized for not stopping and shared he realized he had not been listening to him. Andrew accepted his apology, and they continued riding their scooters.
Bringing Jesus into this situation through my interactions with Him, as well as leading Matthew to interact with Him, led to a much better resolution than if I had tried to figure this out on my own. While I am confident we will continue to struggle with Matthew slipping into enemy mode and behaving badly toward his brother when his RCs are off, we now have a point of reference we can build on. Later that evening, Matthew started getting a bit snippy with his brother. I said, “Are your RCs on?” and he said, “Oh, right; they were slipping off.” He was then able to pause and get relational again. As expected, the interactions with his brother then significantly improved.
I feel grateful Jesus wants to join me in my parenting. I do not need to figure all of these things out, nor do I need all the answers! Jesus is helping my sons develop the motivation to be kind to each other.
This week I want to encourage you to enjoy taking some moments to interact with Jesus about what He wants you to know. When you encounter a frustrating situation where you are not sure what to do, invite Jesus into the ordeal. If it involves your children, encourage them to invite Jesus’ perspective as well. With some practice and effort, these moments can be stepping stones toward a satisfying and life-giving approach to parenting.