Handle with Care

Kind, compassionate approach can only result in good vibes

By Brooke Stacia Demott

The fruit of the spirit is gentleness.” — Galatians 5:22

“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” — Francis De Sales

You know that feeling of being held underwater by an overzealous friend in a public pool? You can’t breathe, you can’t get away, everyone is watching, and you think, yep, this is the end.

That’s what it’s like trying to raise a large family without training.

Five years ago, we were drowning under the heavy hands of parental inadequacy.

Too hard on some kids, too easy on others, we resented their childish irresponsibility instead of patiently guiding them out of it. Worse, we held silent grudges against them.

We needed help.

Enter Dan and Sandy Oostdyk, the generous and knowledgeable founders of Grace and Glory in Oswego, a discipleship house and wildly popular Christian day camp. The couple has raised nine children successfully to adulthood and offered to counsel us in parenting.

We met once a week for several months, candidly laying our dysfunctional cards on the table for their analysis. We complained about the kid’s behavior, spouting lofty ideals that couldn’t be attained. I felt like a failure — we barely qualified as grownups, let alone Christ-like role models.

On one occasion, Dan concluded: “See, a big problem is you need to be gentle with your kids.” That bothered me; I likened gentle to passive, and I knew the products of passive parenting — spoiled, ungrateful, sullen adults who failed to see themselves through the lens of reality and cared little for the people around them.

“What do you mean, exactly?” I asked skeptically.

Dan’s explanation, as was customary, came wrapped in a story.

The Oostdyk family get-togethers are heavily populated. To engage the crowd, Dan often organizes family games, like a group pillow fight. Adults and kids form a large circle and “challenge” one another. The object is to push someone out. Inevitably, a small child will throw down the gauntlet to their father. As the 2 year old summons every ounce of strength against his 30-year-old opponent, his confidence soars, watching Dad stumble and fall by degrees, eventually, to the outside. The beaming, victorious baby is met with the cheers of his amused family.

“Obviously, Dad is stronger than his child. But he holds back. His gentleness encourages the baby to persevere, and gain confidence,” Dan said. “Gentleness is power under restraint, for the good of another.”

Skill, precision and pressure

So, we began to understand that our parenting was too reactionary. When the kids’ behavior annoyed us, we often responded harshly instead of intentionally. Our aim needed to become correcting and training them out of love.

Gentleness was missing from our instruction. As I began to examine what makes a person “gentle,” three critical elements presented themselves.

— Skill: What’s so scary about handing your kid a hatchet to chop wood for the first time?

Or letting a 4 year-old hold the new baby? They have zero skill. New territory is forged with desire and excitement, but not experience.

Instructors must be skilled to safely and properly guide their students. Gentleness requires us to have the right tools and the ability to employ them wisely. If we recognize that we aren’t equipped, like Brian and I weren’t, then it’s critical to find a willing mentor. Only a humble student can hope to become a wise instructor.

— Precision: “My doctor is amazing. He just goes in slashing and whacking off parts until he gets to the right spot,” said no one, ever. Once you have skill, you must be precise about where it is applied. Pinpoint the area of need in a conversation or a situation and focus in on the real heart of the matter.

— Pressure: “Gentle” is an adverb; it requires action. There is nothing apathetic about the gentle individual.  Engaging is a prerequisite; all the skill and focus in the world mean nothing unless you act upon it with the right amount of pressure. Too little, and you make no impact. Too much, and you can do great damage.

Dan’s story helped me to understand how God deals with us. He restrains His own power for our good, so that we might learn, gain confidence, and struggle with difficulty and grow.

How? As the creator and sustainer of life, God has total authority over the earth; and yet, He is both patient and intentional. He applies pressure skillfully and precisely into our lives, to bring us to knowledge of Himself. It is often painful, but not without purpose. Our instructor’s lessons find meaning in His ultimate promise:

“Come to me, all you who are weak and weary, and I will give you rest. For I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” — Matthew 11:28-30.

• Brooke Stacia Demott is a columnist with In Good Health newspaper. Got a question for Demott? Feel free to email her at brooketo@aol.com.