Parenting Is Like Doing the Dishes, Poorly

Getting my daughter to accomplish the various tasks of her bedtime routine can be…difficult. It’s a lot like me trying to eat with chopsticks. It can be done, but it will inevitably require several failed attempts and a lot more time than it should. For example, brushing her teeth in front of the bathroom mirror might involve lots of dramatic gestures with her toothbrush—I think a drama teacher would see promise—but very few of them seem to incorporate her actual teeth. And when I say, “You need to get into the shower,” she—in one of the great mysteries of the universe—apparently hears something like, “I would love it if you could invent ways to avoid getting wet and clean. Be creative!”

My oldest son, on the other hand, needs very little encouragement to get into the shower. His difficulty is in getting out. He wants time to “relax,” he says. He’s nine.

Left to his own devices, he’s liable to create atmospheric conditions in the bathroom that would rival a tropical greenhouse. This means that I’ve regularly had to brave the humidity long enough to ask him if he forgot something as I simultaneously flip on the bathroom fan. The next thing I hear, emanating from the fog, is usually a somewhat guilty “oh yeah.” If I had to guess how many times I’ve asked him to turn that fan on when he takes a shower, my answer would include an exponent.

Recently, however, I’ve witnessed a slight breakthrough. I’ve actually noticed the blessed sound of that bathroom fan on while he’s taking a shower—with no prompting on my part! Not every night mind you, but on occasion. And since the fan is on, the single tear that rolls down my cheek can’t be condensation.

All this reminds me of the experience I sometimes have when I’m in the kitchen trying to wash off a crusty dish or utensil. Bear with me here.

These are occasions when I’m (a) trying to get the major junk off of something before I put it in the dishwasher, (b) it’s been sitting for a while and so removing said junk won’t happen easily, and (c) I’m not yet fully invested in getting it off. In those cases, I try to hold whatever it is under the faucet and vainly hope the water will knock off the scum. After that doesn’t work, I turn it to a scalding temperature in hopes that will help. You might call it the erosion method of washing dishes. As you’d expect—or maybe you’ve experienced—this is not normally a quick or terribly effective process. So I usually get impatient long before getting the results I’m after, which means I grab the scrub brush and get to work.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that parenting is often like using the erosion method of washing dishes—only you don’t have the option of turning to the scrub brush. All you can do is offer a steady stream of reminders, encouragement, instruction, and correction in the context of a warm (not scalding) and loving relationship. And you just have to be patient. Really patient. But eventually, bit by bit, you see some of the progress you’re hoping to see.

Of course, what’s true of turning the fan on when showering or brushing your teeth in less than three acts is also true of more important things like being kind when your little brother is annoying or learning more and more about the relevance of the gospel for our lives. I need to keep reminding myself that I won’t experience some kind of breakthrough with my kids every time I talk, read the Bible, or pray with them. But I need to keep at it. Those oft-repeated parent child exchanges, those family devotions that resemble dropping three cats into a grocery sack, those short bedtime prayers before kissing the kids good night, the worship services that always seem to spark my five-year-old son to need to go to the bathroom, the regular apologies I have to give to my kids for blowing it—I think that these are all things that God somehow graciously uses in the slow process of shaping my kids lives. (And mine, too.)

Call it pursuing positive erosion.

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