A parent, a child, and a well-used rocking chair. It’s a combination that has made a family closer, gentler, and more sensitive to each other.
It started when we were relocating for a new job. Each night, from three thousand miles away, I would call home to talk to my wife and the five children who were old enough to converse on the phone. I missed them dreadfully and needed to hear their voices, but each night I hung up feeling frustrated at trying to solve problems, smooth feelings, and issue instructions long distance.
One night, still feeling frustrated, I tuned into a program about dealing with hyperactive or emotionally disturbed children by teaching the parents to hold them still on their laps and talk to them quietly. Films of early therapy sequences seemed nothing but a tangle of arms and legs, with both parents and children crying from frustration and fear. As time passed, however, the children stopped struggling and started cuddling. The parents became more loving. And a new relationship between the parents and children became apparent.
In the discussion after the case histories, one doctor mentioned in passing that this kind of “touch-me” therapy should be even more effective for children with normal problems. Something clicked. I couldn’t wait to try it on my own family—we started as soon as my children and the rocking chair were in the new house.
Even though I was enthusiastic about the idea, I felt hesitant about the practice. So I started by rocking just my four- and five-year-old sons. Before the first week was up, my two-year-old son and our two daughters, one nine and one six years old, were demanding equal time. There was literally a line outside the bedroom door each night.
Usually Vickie and I get the children ready for bed together. If only one of us is home, we still follow the same procedure; it just takes a little longer. One of us helps the other children get ready for bed while the other one rocks each child separately in our bedroom. Since I have less contact during the day with the children, I usually take the lead in rocking. Once the door closes and the rocking begins, we talk quietly about whatever the child brings up. Immediately after rocking, we kneel by the bed for prayer. First Vickie or I pray; then the child prays. Then there’s a hug, a kiss, and we take the child to his own room and tuck him in.
We usually start with our two-year-old and work up through the other four. Each child waits in his own bed for a turn, talking quietly, reading, listening to a story, or playing with a quiet toy. This lets them wind down and prepare for their turn.
We’ve found that our own preparation is important. The better prepared we are, mentally and spiritually, the more effective the session is. We try never to mix discipline and rocking. If a problem needs to be taken care of, we do it first and then “show … forth afterwards an increase of love” during the rocking (D&C 121:43).
And, above all, we try to listen to the Spirit. In so doing, we’ve found an outpouring of discernment, love, and peace as spiritual gifts to the whole family—gifts that have made us better parents.
Through experimenting with what works and what doesn’t, here are some things we’ve found out:
1. It’s important to be consistent. Our children clamored to be rocked at the beginning. But once they saw that the practice was here to stay, they were much more patient and willing to wait for their turns. We, in turn, learned to adjust our schedules if necessary so that the ritual could be fulfilled each night.
Only a few weeks after we’d been rocking our children, we had company drop in unexpectedly. Hurriedly, we hustled the children off to bed without rocking them. Our two-year-old cried and begged, “Rock, daddy,” over and over as I tucked him in. The four- and five-year-olds were whimpering.
“Just a little one, please, dad,” pled our five-year-old. Exasperated, I relented and learned a great lesson. Rocking and praying with all five children only took twenty minutes. They knew that we were in a hurry and cooperated. My wife and I now agree with the children that a short rock is better than no rock and that a long one is better than most things.
During one hectic period when I seemed to be gone nearly every night at bedtime, I found that I was missing the ritual myself. I started rocking them right after dinner for a few minutes. All of us were happier and they still had the bedtime rocking with Vickie.
Some adults are uncomfortable with physical contact, and find it difficult to hug or kiss their children. Rocking our children has made it easy for us to be more physically affectionate with them. And our children have responded by becoming even more outgoing. Now, when one of them is having a bad day, we often find them asking, “Rock me?” A few minutes usually sends them back comforted and secure.
2. It’s important to listen before we talk. We’ve worked hard to learn to be quiet long enough to let them start talking, and then to ask questions that will clarify information and reflect their feelings before we start working on the problem. The kind of loving, nonthreatening atmosphere that results has brought us the boon of real confidences from our children. If it’s important to send our children out in the mornings, fortified by prayer and scripture study, how important is it to send them to sleep thinking good thoughts and having good feelings? Just as my wife and I try never to go to bed angry with each other, so we try never to send our children to bed crying from a bad experience.
Also, we’ve found that rocking and listening gives us the proper perspective as parents because the Spirit can really whisper to us when we are quiet and receptive. We’ve learned that some things are simply not worth the stress they cause. What we want our children to remember about growing up in our family has come clearer as we’ve held them and listened.
3. It’s important to communicate real thoughts and feelings during this time of rocking and talking. My wife and I feel that teaching by “mini-lessons” is a perfect way to approach these moments with our children.
Sometimes we propose a problem or describe a situation where a decision needs to be made. By listening and asking questions, we’ve helped our children learn to analyze their own problems and find solutions. We’ve found it helpful to ask things like: What’s the problem? How do you feel about it? What choices do you have? What would happen if you made this choice? or that one? If you had to do it over, how would you do it? The list is endless. And even our youngest children can tell us about their problems and discuss them with us.
Another advantage of these discussions is that it lets us talk about feelings—theirs, ours, and those of others in the situation. Our children are learning how to read clues about feelings that have made them more sensitive to others. They are also learning how to speak their feelings—even negative ones—in a way that will not damage others. Rocking lets love, honesty, and forgiveness work together in a rare way.
Another useful “mini-lesson” is on making goals and plans. We review the day’s activities and ask about tomorrow’s. Our nine-year-old set goals nightly, writing them on a sheet of paper on her closet door. The list isn’t large, but it usually covers things important to her, things that often find their way into her prayers. It’s exciting to see her struggle with choices, then share the results. And when the inevitable failure occurs, she has an atmosphere of loving support to grow in and learn from.
A side benefit from talking about goals and plans is that it teaches our children principles of stewardship. They enjoy reporting back on assignments. They’re eager to talk about successes and willing to talk about difficulties.
4. It’s important to pray from the heart. We’ve discovered that pouring out our hearts to the Lord in gratitude and concern about an individual child in his presence has let the Holy Ghost work miracles for both of us. But it didn’t come easily. We had to learn to be specific in our prayers and to really think about what we were doing when we prayed with a son or daughter, something I, at least, had been doing only superficially before.
We’re awed when we contemplate the teaching power of prayer. Through praying individually with each child, we can see that they’ve learned a lot about how we grownups feel about ourselves, that we make mistakes, that we’re trying to improve, that our children are more important to us than anything else, and that we love serving the Lord in the Church.
Children also learn about themselves through our prayers—how we see them, how we feel about them, what talents we think they have, and what we expect of them and hope for them.
One of our family goals is to teach our children to pray for themselves and others thoughtfully by the time they are twelve. Since we began praying after rocking, we’ve seen very rewarding results. We still get some repetition, but there is real variety and a wide range of interests in their prayers. Generally they are praying about what’s in their hearts and on their minds. Vickie and I agree that some of our best moments as parents come when we’ve listened to the prayers of our children.
Best of all, regardless of the quality, our willingness to pray with our children teaches them that prayer itself is important. Even before he could talk, our two-year-old insisted on kneeling, folding his arms, and saying his nonwords because he knew it was an important part of our family life.
5. It’s important to keep the atmosphere loving. We’ve discovered that it’s vital to have a private place where we can give each child our undivided attention. We speak in quiet tones to keep the mood gentle. When we were trying to teach our two-year-old to be quieter in church, the whole family whispered for a week. A side benefit was our discovery that it is almost impossible to keep angry feelings if you’re whispering.
Holding and touching is an important part of loving. It physically soothes and emotionally nurtures our children. When the children grow too tall to fit comfortably in the chair with us, we’ve already planned to continue the contact, sitting knee to knee on their bedroom floor, holding hands, or walking side by side.
And we tell them—daily, unfailingly—that we love them. Sometimes, when we’ve had a difficult day with a child and don’t feel particularly loving, we’ve started by talking about what we like about that particular child. Given a little time and a little peace, the feelings of love have come back again, even stronger.
I’m humbled by the challenges of parenthood and grateful for my children’s willingness to forgive me when my love for them is overwhelmed by my own frustrations and impatience. Our rocking ritual is a way for me to deal with my own imperfections and to let that love come through. One night, I had finished putting everyone to bed but five-year-old Brandon, who needed some medicine. Once down in the kitchen, he firmly closed his mouth and glared stubbornly at me. I tried asking questions thinking I could slip the spoon in when his mouth was open. I tried to find out why he was being so obdurate. But after a little while, I got tired of being patient and understanding. I began to threaten him and, when our struggling spilled the medicine, lost my temper, gave him two good swats on the rear end, and ordered him into bed. I cleaned up the medicine and started upstairs myself, then saw him standing outside his door still crying. My temper flared and I demanded, “Get in bed right now or else!” He burst into tears, shrank back against the door, and sobbed, “Daddy, please rock me.” That stopped me. Then I heard the Spirit whisper, “What really matters?”
We rocked in silence in the dark. He gradually stopped shaking and sobbing. I felt my anger disappear and the love return. He cuddled closer. I hugged him tighter. Without words we talked. Finally we knelt by the bed. My son heard the prayer of a repentant father who loves him dearly and I heard the prayer of a loving son who forgives and forgets immediately.
Each family needs to develop its own practices for showing love; but for us, our rocking ritual provides a tender place for tender feelings to grow.