Michelle Martin

Brush your teeth

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Brush your teeth” is just another way to say “I love you.” So are “Wash your hands” and “Go to bed.” Imperative sentences of three words each, simple enough for Teresa to understand — even if she can’t quite do them on her own.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Bosses’ Day, which we started calling Bossy Day, just for fun. It made me think about how many times I am, well, bossy, with my kids, especially the older ones.

They come to give me a hug and a kiss to say goodnight. What do I say? “I love you too. Brush your teeth.”

Or if they already have (and why are kids so surprised when you can tell if they’ve just brushed their teeth? Especially when they lean in for a hug?) “I love you too. Go to bed.”

Maybe that needs a translation, since I already said they were on their way to bed. It means don’t stay up reading until midnight. Don’t put a DVD on in your room or play video games or do puzzles. It means go to sleep at a reasonable hour and stay that way until morning.

There are all kinds of these three-word commands. “Clean your room.” “Eat your breakfast.” “Pick that up.” “Put that away.” “Don’t say that.” “Find your shoes.”

I type those sentences out and almost cringe. I wouldn’t talk to adults that way; is that really how I talk to my kids?

Well, yes, it is. As uncomfortable as it may be, it’s my job to teach them how to live: how to keep themselves clean and healthy, how to get along with people — even those that annoy them, how to prioritize what needs to be done (e.g., get dressed for school before reading the comics or the sports page).

The Book of Proverbs says, “Whoever spares the rod hates the child, but whoever loves will apply discipline” (13:24). Samuel Butler was a little pithier when he said, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

I don’t take that to mean that parents should actually beat their children, with a rod or anything else. It does mean that parents have to discipline in the old sense of the word. Parents have to teach their kids limits, give them what my husband calls “decent people lessons.”

As a result, my kids sometimes — make that often — think I’m unreasonable, even though I think our standards are pretty lax. But that’s OK. Just as much as it’s our job to tell them what to do, it’s the kids’ right to think that everything would be good if only we’d let them do whatever they want. And to think they can do whatever they want when they are adults.

By the time they are adults, of course, they’ll know that’s not so. We are limited creatures, limited in what we are able to do and limited in what we should and should not do. The story of the Old Testament is one of limits: people testing them and breaking them and reaping the consequences, and God trying again to make them understand that the limits are necessary.

When Jesus rose from the dead, he broke the ultimate limit, but he didn’t make it so we could do anything we want. My kids still have to brush their teeth. And if I love them, I have to tell them so.