I try to focus on parenting my children with the gospel in mind and my eyes on Jesus the whole time, but I fail regularly. Thankfully, I have grace and mercy from God and a helpmate in my husband, and I’m able to try better each time.

One of the things I’ve been focusing on lately is when it comes to extending what’s been extended to me (grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, etc.), I struggle to extend in the same way to my children. It’s like I’ve been given some leeway after acting up, but I expect everyone else to act perfectly all the time around me. That’s hard to admit: I think I’m good at displaying mercy (not getting a punishment you deserve), but I’ve become increasingly aware of my need to extend more grace (getting a gift you don’t deserve).

Still with me? Threenagers are hard. This is a tough age, harder than “terrible twos” (sorry to be the one to tell you this). It’s also a wonderful age where the children are exploring their independence, becoming their own person, learning new skills daily, and trying to figure out where they fit into this big harsh world. It’s no wonder they can be challenging little creatures to care for!

I believe God knew what He was doing when He chose me to be Claire’s mother, and He knew this stage would come and that I would struggle. He’s revealing to me that my struggles are more a result of my own sinful heart and less a result of her bad behavior.

Nevertheless, certain behaviors are expected in our home, and it is our desire to raise our children to know and walk with the Lord in obedience. How can I do that as a sinner myself? By becoming more aware of what He’s done for me, and doing that for others.

I’m getting to the Jar in the title, I promise.

Being aware of mercy made me realize how merciful God has been with me. How many times I mess up on a daily basis, and yet no punishment was rendered? Yes, there are consequences to sin, but God is also faithful and merciful. But I learned its His grace I struggled with. I found I was unable to give my toddler the same level of grace: “give her naughty butt a gift when she hasn’t earned it? Ha, no.”

The Holy Spirit began to wear my pride down, and I have come to see the flaw in my parenting was less about her sinful behavior (I believe we are born sinners who learn good and are redeemed from our sins through Christ’s death and resurrection by the power of the Holy Spirit) and more about how much grace I’d been given that I had not even realized. I couldn’t display or extend my child grace because I hadn’t realized how much I’d been given myself.

Once I was able to shift my thinking toward viewing my life in light of God’s grace (His many gifts and blessings that I, a sinner, did nothing to earn or deserve), I decided I needed something to help me be more intentional about parenting with grace. I’m “good” at disciplining, I’m “good” at correcting, I’m “good” at teaching, I’m “good” at mercy, but I’m not “good” at grace.

Enter the Big Girl Jar.

No, sadly, it wasn’t for me. It was for Claire. I got 3 jars from the Dollar Tree, a pack of pom-poms, a pack of popsicle sticks, and some labels. I put all the pom-poms into one that looked like a candy jar. I wrote “Claire’s Big Girl Jar” with her on the small jar that she could easily get the lid on and off of. I wrote “Rewards” on the tall jar and put all the popsicle sticks in there (each popsicle stick had a “reward” on it. Some were candy, treats, fun activities, but some were normal things we do with a fun twist).

My idea was NOT to create a transactional relationship with good behavior for her. I did not want her to do good things, obey, because she was going to get a reward out of it. I want her to learn to obey and do the right thing because that’s what she’s supposed to do because it pleases God and honors her parents. I had to be intentional about the rewards in that way.

Each time I saw Claire doing a good thing that I hadn’t asked her to do, I let her put a pom-pom in her big girl jar. When she filled up the jar, she got to pick a reward. If I asked her to do something and she did it joyfully, I let her put in another pom-pom. I did not take out the pom-poms if she was disobedient. I didn’t want afternoon behavior to ruin the success of morning behavior, if that makes sense. If it took her a week to fill up the jar, or a day, that was ok. My plan was for me to have a tangible way for ME to notice things OTHER than what she was doing wrong throughout the day.

The great thing about this with a three year old is that sometimes just putting the pom-pom in the jar was enough motivation/reward! And you know what I realized? She’s a pretty good kid. And since she can’t (yet) read (except for a handful of sight words), I have some control over the reward she picks out.

Now, at the risk of sounding prideful, where’s my Big Girl Jar?!