Malachi peeped his pants. He’s three and potty training is pretty new, so it’s not really a surprise. And in fairness to him, I should have been a little more on the ball. Mornings are hectic and getting the other two dressed and to the loo meant I wasn’t diligent in insisting he go try. By the time it dawned on him that he had to go really badly, he was racing against an insistent bladder. He got all the way to the bathroom when the damn burst.
After cleaning him up and getting everyone ready for the ‘out the door’ routine of jackets, shoes, etc. I brought all three together for M&M distribution. Zeke and Gigi each earned the prize by successfully using the potty. But I figured that since I certainly shared in some of the fault for Chi’s accident and he had, after all, almost avoided the incident I decided he had accomplished the spirit of the potty if not the law and got a blue M&M (the only acceptable color for Chi) and presented it to him.
And he refused.
There was no mistaking the look on his face. He knew he hadn’t delivered the ‘goods.’ He didn’t feel worthy. Chi’s a unique kid to be sure. Most three year olds would have put aside that thought in an instant in favor of the candy coated prize. But the thought would have still been there. We are all wired, from a young age, to doubt our worth. I am convinced that even the generation of entitlement that is currently among us is only acting out from a place of painful insecurity regarding their value, they just haven’t encountered enough mercy.
See that’s the solution to the insecurity of worth. Mercy. There are two opposing, but equally damaging, responses to a lack of self-worth.
One is to declare that feeling to be a false feeling and in fact replace it with an intrinsic sense of value. These kids will grow up with the same feeling, but decide it’s a lie and counter that feeling by recalling that they’ve been told that they are indeed of utmost value regardless of any action or circumstance. They’ll want a participation trophy from their boss even if they failed to meet any of their performance expectations. They’ll want the world to reward them with riches and goods without actually working for them and be profoundly disappointed because they feel they are, after all, intrinsically worthy.
The other mistake, of course, is to double down and reinforce their insecurity of self-worth. These kids learn that their value comes only from proper output of the correct behaviors and conditions. They’ll demand a great deal from others and themselves - but never be fully satisfied. Eventually they will encounter a task they or others cannot perform to their expectations and it will grieve them terribly. It will cause them to struggle their whole lives with a fear that they are not valuable because they are, after all, not worthy.
But there is a third option. To acknowledge the errors and faults of persons and to love regardless: mercy. Mercy - the kind that untangles acts of love and rewards from performance and self worth - adds a whole new element to the dynamic of self-worth. It communicates to that child that someone else values them and it isn’t based on any factor other than relationship. Self-worth is properly fostered only when that self is worth something to someone else.
It isn’t all that hard to talk a three year old into eating a blue M&M. But the way I chose to do it was to address Chi’s feeling of worth. I didn’t lie and tell him he deserved the M&M - he didn’t. He hadn’t properly earned it. I didn’t withhold the M&M as a teaching moment (though, as his sense of self-worth becomes more secure over the years I will do exactly that). Instead, I told him I wanted him to have it. I made sure he understood regardless of the fact that he had just drowned Spiderman, and without the contingency of getting his Thomas underpants free of the flood zone in the future, I want to bless him with a good thing because I value him. This is mercy.