I ushered my son quickly out of the dentist’s office, head down and face flushed. After the spectacle we had just created I felt a hundred pairs of eyes staring at me. Just keep walking, I thought to myself, just get to the van.
Once we had retreated to the van where I no longer felt the judgmental glares from the supposedly kid-friendly hygienist, I took a deep breath and turned back to my son who had quietly buckled himself into his car seat. He looked back at me with nervous eyes.
“Am I going to be punished?” He asked me.
“I don’t know buddy. I just need a minute to think.”
Truthfully, I needed a moment – a few moments – to reflect on what had just happened and how exactly I was supposed to handle this situation.
I had just taken my son to the dentist for the first time. At five-and-a-half he was cognizant enough to know how he should behave and realize he could trust my words that the dentist was going to do nothing more than look in his mouth and clean his teeth with a special sort of electric toothbrush. I warned him of the funny, sandy texture of the toothpaste they would be using but other than that, nothing would be too out of the ordinary. Before we left home that morning he seemed to understand those things and although I could tell he was nervous, I thought he would choose to be brave and go forward with the cleaning appointment.
How wrong I was.
He started crying and buried his head into my lap the moment they called his name in the waiting room. He refused to walk back to the hygienist’s chair and it was only some sort of half-dragging motion on my part that got him back there. Once in the room he screamed uncontrollably, tears and snot mingling in a disgusting trickle down his beet-red face.
Seeing how anxious he was the hygienist told me all they wanted to do was look in his mouth with a mirror and brush his teeth with a normal toothbrush and the same sparkly blue toothpaste we used at home. I thought maybe this modification to the dental plan would motivate my son to choose bravery and self-control over the spectacle he was creating. Again, so very wrong.
He continued to scream and cry and refused to be consoled. I tried to remain calm and whisper in his ear words I know usually motivated him to make better behavior choices – words on self-control and making daddy proud and trusting mommy’s words that nothing would hurt. Still no luck.
With my son still sobbing and continuing his personal mission of noncompliance, the dentist and I decided to abort the mission and try again another time. The hygienist glared at me as we walked out, nonverbally communicating as much disapproval as she possibly could. Truthfully her lack of compassion did not bother too much. I had a much bigger issue to deal with.
Clearly my son had behaved poorly and made choices that I wish he had not made. To make matters a little more complicated, we had planned to meet some friends at a lego playplace after the dentist appointment. After the way he had acted at the appointment I was at a loss – should we still keep our plans with friends or in doing so would I actually be rewarding his behavior? If we went and had fun with friends would I create this expectation that actions have no consequences and even when we behave less than ideally we can still get the fun things we want?
I started to pray. I asked the Lord to please guide me in this decision and told Him I needed to know what the right thing was in this moment. I needed to know if I should punish my son for his behavior or extend grace to my little boy who had acted so irrationally out of fear. And He spoke gently to my heart as only the Father can.
Sarah, how do I respond when you’ve acted out of fear?
It was a moment of clarity. I thought about the times when I had stomped my foot down in anger and pride and told the Lord I did not want to walk in certain paths He was calling me to. I thought about all the times when my heart was hardened and I refused to apologize to someone I had wronged. I thought about the many days I have had that were filled with anxiety and worry instead of trust. I thought about all those times when I behaved in a way that was embarrassingly uncharacteristic for a child of God. And do you know how He responded to me in those times? Not with punishment or retribution but rather a gentle kindness and grace that lead my heart to repentance.
We drove to the lego playplace in silence. When we parked my son said, “Why are we here?”
I turned back to look at him, “Buddy, do you know what grace means?”
He shook his head no.
I continued, “Grace means you get something you don’t deserve. It’s like how Jesus died for us when we didn’t deserve the gift of heaven because of our sin. You acted pretty crazy there at the dentist’s office, but I still want to give you something fun and something special, just like Jesus wants us to have heaven even though we are sinners. We are here because I want to show you grace.”
My son unbuckled his carseat, walked over to me, wrapped his little arms around my neck, and squeezed as tightly as he could. In that moment he understood. And my heart was flooded with relief and conformation that I had made the right decision.
That experience at the dentist’s office was certainly unpleasant. But I am forever grateful for the opportunity I had to demonstrate the rather abstract concept of grace to my young son in a very tangible way. If he remembers anything from that day I hope it is that even when he didn’t deserve something good, he received something wonderful. And I hope that experience forever points him to the grace-filled love of our Savior.