It seemed like yet another, increasingly common, back-and-forth frustration between me and my daughter. I couldn’t help but sigh in exhaustion, wanting to discount, in this case, the emotions surrounding a child not finding her Chiefs shirt for “Red Day” at school. She shouted up and down the hallway throwing insults at anyone who walked by. My husband was at a meeting, and I had a sore throat and aching bones from some sort of quick but debilitating virus. I got frustrated and yell-whispered from my bed with a scratchy voice, “Honey, I’m sick, and I physically can’t help you find the shirt. I don’t have the energy to argue with you, so you’re going to have to find your shirt in the laundry on your own.”
She said under her breath, “I hate you.”
I never understood this sort of interaction between parent and child when I would watch television shows or movies in elementary school. I was not allowed under any circumstances to verbalize that I hated my parents even if my emotions felt so loud that I did think it. Growing up, everything did feel so big and so awful that sometimes I projected what I felt on others, including those who loved me the most. I can see that now. But as those words left her mouth in that moment, I must have winced. My eyes showed hurt. We both felt the pain of her words unleashed, watching, almost visibly, the arrows move from her mouth and land into my heart.
“You’re frustrated, and I know you don’t mean that. But you’re grounded tomorrow so you have some space to think about your words.” She stomped away loudly. A good half an hour later with her face hidden by a pillow, she showed up at my door. And while her words hurt me, I almost wanted to laugh at her journey through the long hallway blinded by a decorative twelve-by-twelve soft cotton shield. She stormed in and threw a note on my bed.
I am stupid and a bad kid you don’t want, it said in sloppy handwriting.
Ah, I knew this feeling. When I’ve been wrong and felt shame for acting out, I’ve said similar things: I am so bad I cannot be redeemed. I am so messed up that now I will be rejected. I am so far beyond, you don’t want me now. And don’t I do this with God? Don’t I struggle with the same shame when coming to Him — or when deciding not to come to Him — because I think He’ll reject me based on my performance, on being able to control my emotions and actions just so?
Watching her agony, my heart was endeared to her. This was not about a lost shirt; this was about worthiness.
Being a parent is tedious work. If we’re not listening or watching, we can inadvertently discount really harmful thoughts and let our children believe they’re abandoned in their shame. I pulled a note from the poet Kate Baer, who crosses words out from hateful letters she receives and corrects them with love.
My new crossed-out, fixed version of my daughter’s note read, “I am
stupid stupendous! And a bad kid you don’t want!”
Then I passed the fixed note back to her room via an interconnected web of other children who were waiting to see how I would respond to the Tasmanian devil outburst. Not a minute later, she came to my door, laid her head on the frame, and whispered defeatedly, “I’m sorry.”
I said, “Do I love you more when you obey me? Less when you don’t? Or do I love you the same either way?” This was a softball. She laughed, “Always the same.” She walked back to her room with her face unhidden, her shoulders a little higher. We had rehearsed this phrase for moments like these, when you can’t believe the goodness you’re being shown, especially when you might not deserve it.
The next morning, when I was scrounging for a sharpie in her room, I found the crossed-out, edited-by-me note by her pillow, and it made me tear up. I figured she’d thrown it away in her anger, but no, she clung to it. She needed to reread my love for her, my reframing of her shame, the assurance of forgiveness.
In the Bible, David made a huge mistake and was tempted to live in shame because of it. But he writes this in Psalm 103:12-13,
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.
I do this same cycle with God — of feeling shame, repenting, fighting to believe He loves me beyond performance, and holding fast to my true identity. And what a tender way to remember that I am just like my daughter in that tendency. We’re all very much eleven-year-olds who need to know that we’re wanted, loved, adored, worthy, and good. If we can somehow let that child inside of us know the true remedy for our shame is God’s love, maybe we too could walk a little lighter, a little less hidden, with our shoulders a little higher. What a free way to live that would be!