It’s tempting to share this candid picture (despite its blurriness) on social media and say “My sweet daughter. Found her reading her devotional book to her baby dolls when I went to wake her up this morning. All the heart emojis. Hashtag blessed.”
This is true. But, not the whole truth. For the past couple months, Miss A, my three-year-old, has not only read biblical stories of love and redemptive sacrifice to her dolls, but she’s also appealed to the higher authority of THE BABY DOLLS.
If she doesn’t want to wear an outfit, she blames her refusal on the baby dolls: “Dese colors make dem sad! Dey only wear pink!”
If she doesn’t want to eat her dinner: “My baby dolls not want me to eat dis food. It makes our tummy sick!”
If she’s not getting her way, she says, “You not make my baby dolls happy! Dey so sad now!”
Things have developed (or maybe devolved, actually) when she made her baby dolls spokeswomen for God. Yes, you heard that right. If she says she doesn’t want to be around someone, and I remind her that God wants us to love everyone, she says, “My baby dolls talk to God about dis, and dey tell me I not have to like dat person.”
Anyway, It seems that imaginary allies such as the baby dolls are commonplace for the preschool-aged child. At this same age of three, our oldest son had “the brothers.” This band of boys coincidentally lived out all his dreams.
“The brothers” went to Disney World when he had to nap.
“The brothers” ate lollipops instead of vegetables for dinner.
“The brothers” always went to the zoo instead of staying at home on rainy days.
And, boy, did I hear about their amazing life! When it came to doing any undesirable task, such as cleaning up his toys, my son would simply say, “Did you know that my brothers don’t clean up toys at their house?”
While my son’s “brothers” served as a sort of alter ego for the renegade, free-spirited boy who calls all the shots, he didn’t take it so far as to feign being possessed by their mutiny-driven influence. “The brothers” merely told us what our son liked, and for that, I fondly miss the brothers, and I somewhat resent the baby dolls. While the rest of the world is spinning on its axis, I’m over here in my kitchen, feeling completely stumped about how to deal with this escalating gang of baby dolls.
Earlier this week, it became obvious that–despite having a few sweet, redemptive moments–the baby dolls can’t just be ignored anymore. The baby dolls “told” Miss A to defy a basic rule of the backyard play area and dump dirty sand water on her 18-month-old brother’s head. Being an ultimate and easy-going third child, he actually loved it (I say this just in case you were feeling bad for him while reading that sentence), but this is still proof of the baby dolls’ growing, pernicious influence. I really just want them to go away, but I’m realizing that asking the baby dolls (or insert any imaginary friend of your choice) to go away is like asking my child to mask her heart. No matter how ugly the messages and actions get, I still want to know her heart.
After some outside wisdom (Because, with any more introspection, I was overcome with scenes of a baby doll showdown in my home. Hellllo, Chuckie.), I’ve gathered a coherent response that keeps me attune to the baby dolls while keeping them in their place. Having these pegs to hang my interactions on has been a good first step to creating consistent conversation.
I validate the baby dolls’ existence as her army of friends.
However, I remind her that they only listen to her.
I then remind her that she still listens to her mommy and daddy because we ultimately listen to God.
However, I’m not simply dealing with a verbal barrage coming from the minefield of obstinate baby dolls. Parenting is rarely reduced to a mere formula or rote responses, a realization that is both frustrating and grace-filled. Parenting is full of love and laughter and all sorts of beautiful moments. But, it’s also everyday warring with an ideology that says “I’m my own owner. The master of my fate. I know better than you. My baby dolls are the voice for my everyday rebellion.”
So, more importantly, I’m trying to find the gospel in all this. This past decade, the terms “gospel-centered” and “grace-based” living have met me in a beautiful, life-changing ways I can hardly describe. As I’ve moved into motherhood, I’ve worked to see how this lens can free me as a parent, while also giving me purpose and joy. And, to be honest, there is some GREAT stuff out there, but often it’s hard to make the actual, in-the-moment, theological application when you’re dealing with a kid throwing food in your face (or name your crazy, exhausting scenario).
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’m reminded that the beauty of the gospel is that it is both as simple and complex as we make it. In the instance of everyday living, I do well to rehearse the simple, yet profound: (1) Remember my condition, (2) Remember Jesus’ work for my condition (3) Then, patiently work to help my child realize the same thing. Even with a small child, step three might be rather glanced over, but I am a better mom if I can at least pause to remember steps 1 and 2 before dealing with an issue.
So, how does this all play out? Well, the goal is this: When I ask, for example, Miss A why she ran into the other room to jump on the couch instead of going to her room for bedtime, I really want her to genuinely tell me she’s sorry for giving me such a hard time about bedtime, and I want to her realize that her “random” behavior is actually a result of being a self-absorbed sinner in desperate need of redemption and change.
Instead, she gives me the baby doll gospel. It’s a gospel that blame-shifts and creates imaginary environments to excuse and reinforce a narrative that only serves herself. It’s opposite to Jesus’ gospel, which recognizes that the fallen heart of us has a self-absorbed mentality, yet, through the work on the cross and the help of the Spirit and God’s Word, we have it in us to lay aside those overwhelmingly selfish desires.
But, here’s the life-giving crux of this whole matter: In his book Parenting, Paul David Tripp says, “No parent gives mercy better than one who is convinced that he desperately needs it himself.” The best place for me as a mom and friend is to understand that my daughter, while very delightful and lovable, is a broken sinner just like myself. This truth is where I really found direction with the baby dolls.
If I’m honest with myself, I see that Miss A and I are a lot alike. Except I have grown-up versions of the blame-shifting, self-centered baby dolls. I offer up excuses for not dealing with an escalating problem when I’m really just being lazy. I catch myself begrudging someone for not bending the rules for me to make my life easier. And, this is just the surface of my heart problems; I need so much help. Thankfully, through acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice and continual work for me, there is so much grace for me because I can see my “baby dolls” and call them out for what they are. I can war against them and let true love win. The best news is that this same grace is available for my daughter and everyone else.
So, imaginary allies, I now welcome you. You’ve made brokenness so obvious that we can’t ignore it, and I’m taking heart that “all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light” (Ephesians 5:13, NASB). To repress the baby dolls would be to deny this opportunity and to hyper-focus on my child’s behavior instead of her heart. Together, we have an opportunity to examine what we really want, what we should want instead, and how we can get there through the patient process of a Spirit-working, God awareness. And, THIS is where Jesus’s gospel meets the everyday.