Hazelnuts in the Drawer: St. Zelie’s Method for Helping a Child Overcome a Bad Mood


call-to-deeper-love-coverI came across some parenting wisdom that was both simple and surprising in a letter from St. Zelie Martin to her teenaged daughter Pauline in A Call to a Deeper Love: The Family Correspondence of the Parents of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus 1863-1885.

Talking about Pauline’s younger sister Leonie, St. Zelie writes,

“Yesterday she had an awful day. At noon I told her to make some sacrifices to conquer her bad mood, and that, for each victory, she should put a hazelnut in a drawer I pointed out to her, and we would count them that evening” (p.275).

It took me a little while to think through what was surprising to me about St. Zelie’s method, but then it came to me: St. Zelie recognized that bad moods (ordinary, of course, not clinical) are often caused by our own sinful will and that only the child himself can correct that through conquering his will by self-sacrifice. We know that’s true in our own lives. Happiness isn’t the result of the free exercise of our will but the free exercise of our will to do what’s right: God’s will.

A quick internet search on helping a child overcome a bad mood revealed that St. Zelie’s advice runs counter to what current childhood websites offer for solutions: making sure the child isn’t overtired, hungry, over-scheduled, helping the parent understand that hormones are a difficult thing to manage, etc. In other words, these websites presented plenty of ways to help soothe a child’s body and lots of excuses for a child’s bad behavior, but offered nothing in way of correcting what most likely was the cause: a selfish will, which is a spiritual problem.

We’re often inundated with the messages that if children only have the right environment, the right school, and the right experiences, they’ll turn out just fine. But we’ve been collectively forgetting that children are more than just bodies, they’re souls, too, and unlike plants, they need more than just the right atmosphere in order to flourish.

Good behavior—virtue—is a result of the gradual conforming of our will to God’s. Whether it’s our own bad mood that needs taming or our child’s, St. Zelie helps us remember that nothing beats a little self-sacrifice to help bring back the sunshine.

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Copyright 2016 Meg Matenaer


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