“I Thou” Parenting

My middle kid, Shir, just turned four. This morning, I came into his room to find him naked and tantrumming on the bed. He had taken off his pajamas and was hysterically screaming that he didn’t want to wear clothes today. Clothes are terrible, horrible things, evidently, and he just wasn’t having any of it.

Well, our morning routine doesn’t have a ton of wiggle room in it, and the child needed to get dressed already. I was tired and cranky; there had been an interlude with the baby in the middle of the night, and I hadn’t even had a chance to get my coffee before having to put out this particular naked fire. I confess that I wasn’t really seeing Shir’s three-dimensional humanity at that moment; rather, I was seeing a boy-shaped problem that I wanted solved, immediately.

The 20th century philosopher Martin Buber described two different kinds of relationships: I-It and I-Thou. I-It relationships happen when you see the other person as, well, kind of an object. They happen, sometimes consciously or unconsciously. You might regard the the barista as the object that hands you your coffee—that is, a lot of the time, when you interact with her, you’re not thinking about her complexity and dreams; you’re just hoping she got your order right. I-It is a transactional relationship. I-Thou relationships, on the other hand, are ones in which you connect with the other person’s full selfhood—their hopes, their needs, their joys, and aches. You can, somehow, behold the gorgeous messiness of their whole being.

Most parents, I think, sometimes forget to see their children as Thou. I, certainly, now and again need to be reminded that my kids aren’t just supporting characters in the play starring me. It can be hard to see their wholeness when you want them to just put on their shoes already, you know?

But we can remember to see them. We can see their longing, their fear, their curiosity, and their passion. We can see the child in front of us, who is anxiously waiting to be glimpsed with a loving eye. And when we do so, it can open up our interactions with them. Even–or especially–when things are tricky.

Like this morning. I tried to take a moment to see things from Shir’s point of view. For whatever reason, today he especially needed to do things on his terms. When I finally saw him not as the impediment to us getting out of the house on time, but as a child with a desperate need that I couldn’t fully grasp, things shifted. That’s when I was able to reach out to a small boy feeling a little out of control on a Thursday morning. Instead of trying to force him to comply, I was able to draw him out. I don’t even think I said or did anything that was so different than when I’m in I-It mode—you know, I offered him a choice of shirts, I helped him think about what he would eat for breakfast once he was dressed. But how I did it was different, because I was able to drop my agenda and really actually connect.

So maybe, you know, once or twice this week, when you catch yourself feeling frustrated and fed up with your kids, you might try to remember to see the Thou in there. What’s your kid experiencing? What world are they inhabiting right now? And even: Who is this person? You don’t need to know the answer—the work of love is in the reaching to find them. If you feel humbled by the mystery that is your child, perhaps it’s for the better. Humility is useful in parenting sometimes.

I-Thou, Buber says, is the model of the relationship we have with God. When you reach out to to your children with curiosity, with love, and with the will to see them in all of their beautiful fullness, who knows? Could be that you take a step into the sacred.

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