It would be easy to fill my house with words on the walls but one can certainly overdo it. Even with just the odd one here and there it's so easy to become so familiar with them that I no longer read the words.
However, I find myself examining this one afresh, because I have changed the way I do things. For the sake of my back and the proximity of the radiator now that the nights are drawing in, I've moved my primary spot for writing to the kitchen table, rather than my perch on a stool at the island unit. Here, the chair may be hard, but it has a back on it, and the fridge is no longer at arms length. This can only be a good thing. Now, from this 'desk', I am straight opposite the plaque.
FAMILY RULES, it says.
Yes, one of those. Bought with the children in mind, because children need rules, don't they? Children need reminders of what's right and what isn't. The problem is that as I sit here nursing my coffee I realise that I need reminding too; possibly more than they do. After all, they're only seven and nine, and I'm supposedly all grown up.
'Keep your promises'
Right. Problems here right away. I don't like promises, for a variety of reasons. First of all, it says in the Bible,
'All you need to say is 'yes' or 'no'. Everything beyond this comes from the evil one.' NIV (Matthew 5:37)I want my children to grow up trusting my word; that if I say I'll do something, I'll do it. I can see the sense in being very careful what you say you'll do. On a practical level, I learned very quickly that small children have highly selective memories that are totally incapable of retaining information about likes and dislikes ('Yesterday you liked bananas!') but perish the thought that you should blithely say 'yes' to some outrageous plan one evening only to find it impossible (or impractical) to follow through the next day.
Mum, you promised. Then you're left in the no man's land of 'well, I didn't technically promise...' and I hate that sort of wriggling. So I say annoying things like, 'We'll see.' or 'I'll think about it.' A distinction without much difference, perhaps. But I don't promise, and I tell the children not to make promises, but to let their word be enough. If they say they'll do something, do it. Don't swear on anything, don't bargain, just say yes or no. I'm not sure they see it quite as simply as this.
Under 'Keep your promises' is:
Oh my word, there's a can of worms. My daughters are sometimes remarkably generous with their things, and other times meaner than Scrooge.
'Can I borrow your green crayon?'
'No. Get your own.'
That kind of thing. I find large portions of my life spent brokering peace deals about who has the gadget for how long before having to hand it over in order to avoid A having possession of it for a nanosecond longer than B. Also removing said gadget from both as a potentially expensive tug-of-war begins. So the 'Share' part is definitely for the kids, then.
Or not. I recall just the other day becoming rather animated (shall we say) when my favourite pen was missing from the pen pot on my desk for the millionth time when I wanted it. On numerous occasions have I retrieved it from wherever it turned up but this time it was Gone For Good. I made dire pronouncements about nobody ever begin allowed to touch my pen pot again, ever. The following day my mum handed me a package containing a replacement pen. Ahem. The kids so far have been afraid to touch it.
Good sharing, then.
Think of others before yourself.
This is written rather small, and is easy to miss. This is quite convenient as quite often I would rather pretend that I haven't seen it.
I have to say that having children is a painfully good way of finding out how selfish you are, should you want to know, and I can't say that I did.
Since my babies came along it's been a long, drawn out battle between their needs and my desire to please myself. They won't/can't give in, and I don't want to, so the battle continues to rage. I want the house the way I want it, I want to spend my time the way I want to spend it, I want to eat when I want to, sleep when I want to, and so on. I don't want to wipe bottoms, make endless meals and find an inordinate number of replacement batteries for things that beep.
I love my family more than I can possibly put into words, but it is not easy to think of others before yourself. It isn't. And when I get a good run at it, and keep everybody happy for a while, the little voice in my head might pipe up with things like, 'So what about you? Who's making you happy?' and spiky little things called Resentment and Self-pity and Irritation dig in.
St Paul knew it would be like this. He said:
'Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, rather, in humility, value others above yourself.' (NIV) Philippians 2:3It's hard to put others first. It's dead easy some of the time, because I love my family and I want to make them happy, and I love it when they are happy, but consistency is key and that's downright difficult. I like peace, and giving in and choosing your battles and letting go of control-freakery and so on are ways of keeping the peace. But sometimes, just sometimes, I throw all this up in the air and inwardly shout, ME ME ME.
Say I love you.
This part is easy. We say 'I love you' lots. Several times a day. I am blessed beyond measure to have a family that loves each other and I tell my husband and he tells me, and I tell my girls and they tell me, and he tells them and they tell him... and so we are pretty much loved up most of the time. So we nailed that one, didn't we?
Well, it occurs to me that there are times when those words are the furthest thing from my head, and sometimes that's when they're most needed. When I've locked horns with one of the girls over something vital to their wellbeing - like whether it's cold enough for a coat, perhaps - how much I love them is not foremost in my mind. When my daughter is in the middle of a tantrum because the same shoes she's worn for three months suddenly 'feel weird' and can't be worn today, the last thing on my mind is to tell her how loved she is. Perhaps that's when she most needs to hear it.
Listen to your parents
Of course. This is 'a no-brainer' as they say. Most of what I say is definitely worth listening to. Children should always listen to their parents. Just like I did.
Hmm. I'm not sure whether the most senior member of my household might agree with that one. I remember a conversation from way back when that went something like this:
'Have you done your homework?'
'It'll get done, mother.'
Still, I grew up pretty well, didn't I? Maybe they will, too.
Do your best
We do our best, in this house. Most of the time. One of my daughter's teachers at parents' evening a while ago said, 'She does her best, usually, except when she doesn't.' I can understand that. Sometimes we cut corners. Sometimes it's too hard.
We do our best to do our best.
Say please and thank you.
Last night, an exchange in our house:
'WILL YOU GET YOUR WELLIES OFF THE TABLE RIGHT NOW!' (Not actually a question)
'Mummy, you didn't say 'please'.'
The conversation didn't end there, but we'll draw a veil over the next bit. My example might not be perfect, but I have been known to offer a plate of biscuits to random visitors to the house and automatically say, 'Thank you, Mummy' when they take one, before clamping a hand over my mouth. Parents of my daughters' friends tell me that they are polite and remember their please-and-thankyous when they're out and about and so I think we do okay. Always room for improvement, though.
'Please, if it's not too much trouble, would you mind removing your wellies from the table?' might have been better, I suppose.
Always tell the truth
Oh, another can of worms. Straightforward and black and white? Yes, on one level, it certainly is.
Witholding the full horror of the truth from a small child is sometimes required, however, as it was on the day some years ago when my littlest girl asked me how much I loved Scruffy Barney (her favourite, special toy). I said that I loved him very much, because she loved him. She then went on to ask me if I had to save either Scruffy or her sister from a dinosaur, who would I save? She was devastated by the answer and cried for about half an hour.
Always tell the truth?
Always tell the truth to your mum, that's what I say. I have always known when my daughters are telling lies, but as they get older it gets harder and harder, as does making them believe that Mummy always knows when they're not telling the truth. There's a felt tip pen scribble on the bookcase and both of them deny having anything to do with it. Was it Daddy? Or Grandma? Or maybe I did it by myself without realising? All these were serious suggestions.
I still don't know who did it. I moved the lamp six inches to the right and now you can't see it any more. Sometimes moving on is the best thing you can do.
Laugh at yourself
For someone like me, among the most self-conscious souls in the world, this isn't an easy one. I'm better than I was, but still not that good. My daughters take after me - or maybe it's just because they're little - but we need to work on not taking things so seriously.
They have such a wonderful sense of humour (when it's not bottom jokes, or cackles over Uranus and its gassy atmosphere) and sometimes a very clever wit. Quite often, though, one of them will say something funny and we'll all laugh, and they'll be embarrassed and cross. Laughing is good, we say, it's a gift to make people laugh. We're laughing with you, not AT you; 'But I wasn't laughing,' they say.
Ah, well, that's where we come unstuck, then.
This is a bit like 'Say I love you'. We hug all the time. We have different levels of hugginess, but we are a fairly tactile family. One daughter creeps onto my lap at any excuse and the other needs to be sneaked up on, but I love that we hug. There are moments when a hug is exactly what's needed, however, and it's the hardest thing. The mean times, the irritable times, the tantrum times. The refusing-to-admit-I'm-wrong times. Hug then, too. That's when a hug really does say more than words.
Use kind words
Sigh. For someone who loves words, who enjoys playing with them and trying to get them to do what I want them to do, I sometimes get it spectacularly wrong. Words can build up or destroy, and I know how easy it is to disregard the dozen nice things someone says and remember only the bad thing.
Whoever said that 'Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me,' had no idea how words can penetrate the heaviest armour and wound on a profound level. I have been guilty of saying terrible things to the people I love and have carried that guilt for a long time. Controlling my temper and making sure that in the middle of the anger and the confusion and the excesses of emotion harsh and hurtful things don't slip out is very difficult indeed.
I need a lot of help here.
And finally: Love each other
And this is what reassures me. Most of the prescriptions of the plaque look straightforward enough in theory, only to turn out to be complicated in practice. Most of them I fail at on a daily basis: we all do. It's hard to share, to do your best, to be unfailingly truthful, to use kind words. It's just hard.
So is loving each other, but we do. And because we do, we try, and we keep on trying. It was very easy to buy this little plaque and choose where to hang it, and indeed, I showed it to the girls and got them to read it out loud. They weren't that keen, and I can see why. It's a lofty ideal to have words like that on the wall, and I need to remember that I don't live up to them any better than my little girls do. It's good to have them in front of me to remind and inspire me; to have them there on the wall to say, 'This is what I'm aiming for. This is what I want to be like - a person who does these things' . And then I can try, and keep trying.
I know I get it wrong, and often, but I am not crushed or discouraged by the distance by which I fall short.
The reason I'm not is that I know that I am loved anyway, just as I am, with all my failures. Just as I don't stop loving my girls when they are caught out in a lie, or when they don't do their homework, or when they fight over a crayon, I am loved. Even when I snap at my husband, or do what I want to do at someone else's expense, I am loved.
A long time ago Moses had a different plaque with ten Family Rules and they're downright impossible to live up to. There's only ever been one man in the history of the world who managed it. Moses even hurled them on the floor until they smashed into small pieces because he was so frustrated at the people's disobedience, but God never stopped loving His people.
Even though I have the Rules before me and I forget them and choose to do something else over and over again, even so, I am forgiven. Even when I try to reinterpret them and wriggle out from underneath my failure to keep to the rules, I am forgiven, and I am loved.
There's so much to learn.
Keep Forgiving. That should be on the plaque as well.
There is always another chance.
It's never too late to try again.
Amen to that.