Even she wasn’t quite sure why she hated it. Yet our generally peaceful relationship always soured when it came time to clip my daughter’s fingernails. From the time she was tiny, it had been a source of conflict and frustration for both of us. Her little fingers would stiffen in impatience as I tried to clip the nails, making the process more tedious, and I would have to continually ask her to relax her hand for me. She was never exactly defiant, yet she always managed to make it clear how much she did not enjoy what was happening to her.
She knew she needed to work on her attitude, and I know she did try. On her better days, she used it as an opportunity to practice having a good attitude even when she didn’t feel like it which meant that her initially morose outlook was replaced by a painfully simulated chipperness. It was a valiant effort, but it fell flat for both of us. Honestly, a sincere gloom was better than ersatz cheer, but she continued to try. Despite her exertions, we were both always a little less enchanted with the other by the time all ten nails had been clipped. It became a ritual that we mutually dreaded and we were just grateful that fingernail clipping doesn’t come around quite to frequently as, say, tooth brushing!
Sometimes, as her nails would get longer and we knew the next clipping was becoming unavoidable, she joked that she wanted to grow them out like the Empress Cixi’s. When she started playing the cello at a young age and it became necessary to keep her nails well-trimmed at all times, I racked my brain for something that could change this unpleasant and unhealthy dynamic between us. Could anything turn this chore into something pleasant or at least neutral?
My guiding principle was the question, “How can I cultivate relationship even in conflict?” I tried simple things like not waiting until she was tired or hungry or frustrated about something else before reminding her it was time to clip her nails. I allowed her to continue to listen to her book on tape while I clipped. Nothing really changed. It was still unpleasant, but of course now it was also awkward as she attempted a well-intended but ineffective pretense of enjoying the experience and I tried to respect and honor her efforts.
Then one day, I had the answer. It lines up so beautifully with Jesus that I know it was from God. It is a bless those who curse you answer, an answer that turns things upside down and inside out, an answer that redeems and transforms. The next time I clipped her fingernails, I needed to tell her one thing that I loved, appreciated, or enjoyed about her for each finger. It was so simple and so beautiful and so perfect.
When I explained my idea to her, she reacted with genuine enthusiasm and snuggled up on my lap to give it a try. As I clipped each nail, I had the opportunity to relate to her that I love her freckles, her laugh, her generosity, her kindness, her love of good books, her penchant for dark chocolate, and so many other things. The experience was incomparable. Suddenly, we were enjoying each other and savoring each moment. We laughed and chatted, and her strained attempts to keep her attitude under control had disappeared. Over the years, this tradition (yes, it immediately became a tradition) has afforded me an opportunity to share with her so many of the little quirks, traits, and qualities that I love about her but might never have thought to mention.
She is eleven years old and I still sometimes clip her fingernails for her—not because she can’t do it herself now, but because we both treasure the experience and we aren’t quite ready to give it up. Of course, many of the conflicts with our children have deeper roots and require more nuanced solutions or adjustments, but this tradition reminds me to pray for transformation and redemption, and to consider how I might cultivate relationship in even the most persistent struggles.