A while ago, my best friend from college recommended Sally Clarkson‘s podcast to me, and it’s now one of only two podcasts to which I make time to listen regularly. I’ve found it to be such an encouragement to me in my mothering. When Sally started talking about the new books she had coming out, and I read her guest post on Ann Voskamp’s blog, I knew I had to read this book. It’s called Different: The Story of an Outside-the-Box Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him.
You see, I have at least one child who is an outside-the-box kid. I actually suspect all four of my children may be, each in their own way, likely manifesting it in different ways and at different times. However, there is one child in particular of whom I am thinking right now. Matt and I have had innumerable conversations about what we believe is going on with this child, and we’ve prayed and sought advice from several people whom we trust. We’ve just recently begun the process of exploring whether it might be good to have some more formal professional evaluations done.
In the midst of all that, there is so much doubt and second-guessing. Is my child struggling in this area because I have failed them in some way? Has my discipline been too harsh? Too permissive? Have we made poor choices, and is what we’re seeing now just the result of that? How are the things we’re seeing affecting our other children? Am I a horrible mother?
And into those fears and questions stepped Sally and Nathan Clarkson with this book, and it was such an encouragement to my soul. Frustrated by the frequent unexpected delays to my agenda that this child’s behavior can cause, I read Sally’s words, “And I began to deeply perceive that people made in God’s image, no matter how challenging, are of more importance to Him than efficiency, control, or order” (page 27). To my fear that my parenting is ineffective and that everyone does or will view me as a bad mom, she speaks, “So instead of worrying about what others thought or about what I thought children should be like, I tried my best to focus on Nathan’s true needs, his actual capabilities, and what he needed most to learn. I aimed at reaching his heart through consistent instruction, encouragement, accountability, and training, moving him little by little toward self-control and responsiveness to our family ways” (page 27).
I found reassurance that I wasn’t the only one to make a commitment to this as a parenting strategy: “So I learned to pick our battles carefully. I tried to focus on those things that mattered spiritually, not minor issues or man-made rules. I intentionally pressed in on issues that would affect relationships, character, and faith and tried to back off of other, less crucial issues” (page 41). That same strategy is the reason you’ll often see our big girls out and about with drawings on their faces these days. It is certainly not my preference – but we’ve got bigger battles to fight. I’ve told them that if they’re going to draw on themselves, it needs to be with washable markers, but beyond that, we allow it.
I read challenges to press on in pursuing and loving this child – “[God] does not require us to control our children or friends, much less ‘fix’ them. But he does call us to pay attention, to love others, to be the ones who reach out as consistently as possible…My most important ministry would unfold one obedient moment after another as I learned to love and understand and serve those who were closest to me. Nathan or one of my other family members would push my buttons. And I would have to overcome my feelings and practice giving patient answers, to give up my rights one more time…[W]alking in the power of the Holy Spirit often means choosing to be patient and loving when you feel like being impatient and angry. It is the practicing of growing in these areas that grows our spiritual muscle” (pages 136-137).
I found encouragement that persistent compassion and grace can reach hearts – “Knowing when to correct and train, when to overlook, and when to enjoy and praise is a constant balancing act for a parent, but I tried to err on the side of compassion and sympathy with Nathan. These seemed to be the tools that opened Nathan’s heart to correction. And these gifts could only be given through personal time invested over and over again” (page 145). And I saw reassurance that prioritizing my relationship with my children matters – “If we are gentle, loving, kind, forgiving, then our children will have a picture from us that God is also gracious, kind, loving, forgiving” (page 160).
Perhaps most encouraging of all, I read that I was not alone, that even Sally Clarkson, who speaks around the world, encouraging moms, had hard days in parenting, and yet she made it through them. She writes, “[M]any dark, challenging days filled my journey of motherhood. Yet my foundational faith told me every day that God was good and that He had given me this day to live out my faith in Him by doing my best to bring light, goodness, and kindness into the world. And so it was amidst my struggles and trials that I learned the secret of celebrating life as it had been given to me” (page 194). And she raised a son who, while outside-the-box, has learned to follow God in his own unique way. He himself says, “The truth is, we live in a deeply fractured world, and we don’t always have a choice about being broken. But we do have a choice about where we let our brokenness lead us. We can follow it into escape or addiction. But we can also follow it straight to God. To the One who knows us inside and out – with all our mistakes, broken parts, insecurities, and battles – and who still loves us” (page 186). And of the fruit of his experience with his difficult growing years, Sally writes, “I am convinced that the stories he is now telling could never have had such depth if his soul had not been shaped by the pain and tears of being different” (page 214).
Having an outside-the-box kid doesn’t mean I’ve done anything wrong as a mom. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with my child. It means that this is the path God has set out for us to walk, and we’re going to figure it out together, certainly making mistakes, but attempting to live honorably, challenging one another, and having our lives enriched along the way. I was so encouraged by this book, and if you are parenting an outside-the-box kid, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy and read it, too.