Substantive Education

October 5, 2010

Nurturing the Inner Life of your Child

A fall day spent apple picking with Tim and Jess

I love the fall, I think it’s my favorite season even though I’ve never lived where the seasons actually change. Ah well, maybe someday. Anyway, as I was decorating I was thinking about trees…and possibly planting some that change colors in the fall. We admire the part of the tree that we can see: the leaves, the shape, and the fruit. Those are what draw our eye and lead us to declare a tree beautiful or productive. Observing the characteristics of a tree helps us to determine whether or not the tree is healthy. However, it is what is going on below the ground and deep inside the tree that determines whether or not the tree is going to thrive.

The analogy is an apt one when we think about child rearing and education. When we see a happy, well-adjusted child we have indications that all is well, and when we see a disruptive, angry child we can be equally certain that all is not as it should be. Sometimes, as parents, particularly on those difficult days, we tend to focus on the outward, visible signs. When we see bullying behavior we discipline our child, when they are disrespectful we send them to their rooms, when they are selfish, rude etc. we reprimand them. All of these things can be appropriate, necessary steps, but they are like pruning a tree, they only address a small part of the issue. The roots and internal issues are left to fester and grow, without addressing these our tree, or child, will soon be troubled.

Behavior is an outgrowth of how a child thinks about himself and the world…there is a lot going on below the surface. While we need to prune back that out of control branch, we cannot ignore what is going on below the surface. We need to try to determine the root of the problem. (I’m loving this tree metaphor.) Frequently, due to the pressures of parenting and time, we resort to situational, or reactionary parenting. We merely react to each situation as it presents itself. Obviously, there is always an element of this to parenting…if your three year old throws a tantrum you need to react. However, if that is your main mode of parenting you are missing out on some powerful tools that will benefit both you and your child.

Instead, it is helpful to think about the roots and inner life of your child, to be intentional about feeding and nurturing that inner life. By doing a few key things we can help our children grow into productive, healthy adults. I want to look at two sides of this…one is that we need to be very careful to do no damage as our child develops. As parents we have a powerful impact on our children, and often, thoughtlessly, we do and say damaging things. Secondly, we need to methodically and intentionally feed the inner lives of our children so that they have resources within themselves to meet life’s challenges.

Firs, let’s discuss some things we shouldn’t do. How your child views him/herself is very powerful and as parents we must carefully consider how our words are shaping this young person. If you are continually telling your child that they are selfish (disrespectful, rude, a procrastinator) you are fixing in their minds negative qualities as part of their self image. These thoughts become a part of your child’s identity. I’m sure you all know an adult who was told as a child that they were stupid, lazy, or not good at something…and they have carried that view of themselves into adulthood and it has shaped their decisions and how they live. Our words have power, especially to a child (or maybe even more to an insecure teen). They shape a child’s view of the world and of themselves. I can’t overemphasize this enough. A great deal of counseling is bringing adults to the place where they can move beyond the statements that they internalized from their parents. Believe me, I know that we all have done this at some time or another. It is natural to think that speaking the truth, calling our children on their bad behavior will cause them to want to change it. However if this sort of negative statement is repeated often enough instead of changing the bad behavior we only succeed in twisting their self-image into fitting what we are saying.

Logically, if you continually tell your child they are disrespectful or selfish they will internalize that message and it will become a part of who they are. They

Tim, at times he could be a little devil.

might fight against that but with enough repetition they will give in and embrace that view of themselves. I cannot overstate this enough…there is power in your words. You may think that you will embarrass or manipulate your child into better behavior…but that is not a positive parenting strategy.

So, first, avoid making declarative negative statements about your child. Banish from your vocabulary statements like, You are so selfish, disrespectful, such a brat. Etc. ESPECIALLY, don’t let your child hear you make those statements to other people, not only is it embarrassing to them (and being embarrassed in front of others is sure to create anger and resentment), but now your child knows that not only do their parents think they are no good, but so do the other adults in their lives.

This does not mean that you don’t address the issue with the child and tell them that they are behaving badly. But how you phrase that is very important. You say ‘You are behaving badly right now’ not ‘You are bad.” There is a huge difference. Try to think of your child’s bad moments as teaching moments. Take the time to sit down and have a rational conversation about their behavior. Ask them if they are happy with how they are acting, how they wish to act, is their something you can do to help them change their behavior. These types of conversations will be far more productive. Your child is not misbehaving to make your life miserable. (well, if you have criticized enough and made them feel rejected they may well be doing it on purpose, rejecting you in self-defense.) They are behaving badly because they are kids. They are still learning…that is why they have parents. The are not born polite, self-less, controlled little adults, they have to mature into that…and they need you there as their ally, not as their attacker.

Take a moment to consider how you would respond if the weaknesses in your life were dealt with in a like manner. Do you want your spouse repeatedly criticizing you or telling your friends at dinner how bad you are with money, or how you can’t cook a decent meal? Does it inspire you to do better? At what point does that sort of constant criticism make you want to give up trying and figure you don’t have any chance of changing their opinion anyway. Is that what you want for your children?

Taking this a step further…how frustrating and hurtful is it to you, to have your past failures thrown up in your face? Do you think your child feels any differently? The past should remain in the past. When your child is disrespectful deal with that instance…DO NOT throw up your hands and say…’what is wrong with you, why are you always so disrespectful?’ This is not helpful. First of all, it’s probably not true. Do you comment when your child is obedient and respectful…do you tell them how great it is to have a child who is helpful? Secondly, it does not give your child the tools they need to deal with the feelings they have that are causing the disrespect, or the tools they need to break the bad habit they have gotten into. (And if you’ve ever tried to break a bad habit you should have some sympathy for them.) And lastly, it creates anger and frustration…both with themselves for failing…again, and with you for pointing it out. Anger and frustration are not conducive to better control and behavior.

One of the key lessons that I tried to instill in my boys when they were younger was that bad behavior in someone else does not excuse bad behavior on your part. When they ended up in a tussle they knew that they would get nowhere with my by trying to say who started it. I don’t care. They each needed to fess up to their own bad behavior. Just because your brother or friend was behaving badly doesn’t mean you get a free pass. The same is true with us parents. Do you allow your child to shout, yell, or cuss at you? Well then, you can’t yell and shout at them. (I’m not saying I never did this, I am saying that I was in the wrong when I did.) Your child’s bad behavior doesn’t give you a free pass to lose your temper with them. If you do, how can you expect them to keep their temper with you? After all, they are just children who haven’t had time to develop self-control, you on the other hand are the adult in this situation.

Okay, so those are the Don’ts…that is only half the battle. What can you do to establish positive thought patterns, healthy coping skills, and an identity based on truth into your child? This takes some thought and intentionality. Just as you can damage, undermine, or warp your child’s self-image with constant criticism…you can also do the reverse. The same tool that is dangerous on the one hand, is useful and productive when used correctly.

Tim working on a construction project in Mexico while on Potter's Clay

That tool is your words. They have power. They have power when they are used in blessing and encouragement. Just as our children will live down to our expectations, they will often rise to our expectations when they know we think well of them. Now, none of this will work if it is not done in truthfulness and integrity. Do not gush non-meaningful phrases just to be giving positive input…kids have honed radars when it comes to dishonesty. What I’m talking about is communicating to your children that you enjoy them, you like them, you expect that they will make the right choices. Now true, no one is going to fall over with surprise when they mess up, but what is communicated is that you genuinely value them, their opinions, and that you want to have them around. They know that you are a safe place to come for wise counsel, not a push over, but a safe place.

If your child struggles with selfishness, instead of focusing on that, focus on it’s opposite, generosity. Look for every little thing your child does that is unselfish and offer sincere praise. (Make sure it’s sincere. DO NOT invent things to praise your child about. It’s just as detrimental to your child’s self image to tell them how great they are or what a good job they did when they didn’t.) If your child helps a younger sibling, shares a favorite toy, recount the incident at dinner to your husband, with your child listening. This reinforces the fact that you see them as capable and generous persons…and they will seek to repeat that behavior. Soon they will begin to internalize that message…I’m good with young children, I share, I’m generous…and as that message is internalized it will become part of their identity and then of their actions.

Look for activities that will instill generosity (or politeness, organization, a positive attitude etc.) Maybe have your child serve dinner at a homeless shelter each month, help at a food pantry, take a meal to a sick relative. Let them experience first hand the joy that can come from doing for others and helping those less fortunate than themselves. Warning, doing these things should never be presented as a punishment, or as a lesson, but just as a joyful opportunity to do something for someone else because we can.

During your school lessons memorize Bible Verses about having a generous heart. As you read your history talk about those heroes who unselfishly put others ahead of themselves. I would do these things without making any kind of direct correlation to my child…just discuss what made the character great, how attractive their selflessness was…and let your child mull it over and make their own connections. On the flip side, it’s always great to examine negative behavior when it’s a character in a book. Instead of looking at the unattractiveness of selfishness with your child as the object of discussion, have the discussion about a character. It makes the conversation less personal and allows your child to learn and think about the concept without being defensive.

So, in summary, when you see a bad habit or character trait developing in your child, deal with it. Come up with a plan of discipline so you know ahead of time what you are going to do. Be consistent. Deal with each incident individually and then put it in the past and start fresh. Let your child know that once it’s done, it’s done. (I am so grateful that this is how God deals with me.) As far as it is possible let the punishment be something that only inconveniences the child…not you. This allows them to see that behaving badly doesn’t gain them anything in terms of getting back at you…but that they are the only one to suffer.

Then, make a positive plan. Figure out what the positive attribute is that you want to encourage in your child and look for ways of planting that characteristic into their life. Be intentional about it. Be prepared for this to take time, years in fact. You didn’t learn to be patient or organized in 2 weeks did you? There will be set backs, just like you have yours. Keep on keeping on. Seek opportunities to speak to your child about their giftedness, abilities, and strengths…and then with sympathy and love help them to overcome their weaknesses. In short, treat them the way you would want to be treated.

As you look at the beautiful fall trees and decorations let it be a reminder to you to look to the inner and hidden life of your child. The more we nurture and feed their ‘root system’ the easier it will be for them to thrive.

Oh, and as a last word of warning, be realistic and just pick one or two areas to work on at a time. Give your kids a break, they don’t need to achieve perfection next month.

Next month we’ll move on to how the tree metaphor can inform and improve our homeschooling efforts.

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