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Parenting: A Christ-Like Vocation

I read an interesting quote about parenting that made me to stop and ponder.

“There is no other thing you do in life only that the person you do it for can leave you. When they leave, that is success; when they do something because they want to do it and not because you want them to do it, then you have done your job. You succeed when you make yourself irrelevant, when you lose yourself.” (Keith Gessen in Raising Raffi)

It’s true. Raising a child is one of the most rewarding opportunities a person can ever experience. It is also a challenge. It’s bittersweet; and it’s beautiful. Becoming a parent compels us to become a better person. In fact, becoming a parent may well prove one of the most influential ways of shaping us in godly, Christ-like character.

If you’ve gone to Sunday School, I’m sure you heard that a “person who seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will be saved.” Parents invest their time and energy into their children. Rather than invest solely in their own interests and pleasures, they invest in their children’s growth and enjoyment. In a sense, parents quit seeking to save their own life and start investing in their children’s lives. They focus on their children’s lives and, in so doing, find their own joy and happiness in watching their children become mature and responsible adults.

Parents serve their children with no expectation of being served in return. Sure, children contribute to the household in age determined ways. But parents encourage them to contribute to the household so they can mature and grow into responsible adults, not so they can serve their parents. In fact, most chores would likely go faster and more efficiently if a parent did them on their own rather than allow their 8-year-old to help. But we encourage the 8-year-old to help because we are in service to their development and maturation.  Parents serve their children by providing for their physical, emotional, and mental needs. It’s as if we came into parenthood to serve, not to be served.

Serving and investing in our children’s lives results in sacrifice. Not only do parents sacrifice time and energy, but they sacrifice a new set of clothes to get their children school clothes. They sacrifice the last piece of chicken so their child can have it. They sacrifice willingly and lovingly, out of a desire for their children’s best interest above their own. And they sacrifice without complaint. Many don’t even recognize their parents’ sacrifices for us until we are older and have a more mature perspective. But parents continue to sacrifice anyway.

Then, perhaps the greatest sacrifice of all, we let them go. They leave. They no longer need us. We have “made ourselves irrelevant.” As harsh as this sounds, isn’t it what Christ did when, “although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant”?  He emptied Himself, made Himself of no reputation, became “irrelevant” according to worldly standards. Yet, it was through that giving up of Himself that He brought us into His loving family as children of God. Perhaps it’s because parents give themselves up for their children that their children become mature and are then able to truly return a deeper, truer love to their parent.  

Investing in another more than myself. Serving another’s needs more than my own needs. Sacrificing for the good of another. Sounds like a parent. Sounds like growing in godly character. Sounds like love. If you will pardon my paraphrase: parents “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard their children as more important than themselves; [they] do not merely look out for their own personal interests, but also for the interests of their children” (adapted from Paul, Philippians 2:3-4).

What Did I Just Do?

My daughters were upstairs…arguing…loudly. I hate arguing. And I hate loud. Still, I waited in hopes they would resolve their disagreement without my intervention.  But they continued to argue and yell. The longer they yelled, the more my irritation grew. After what seemed like an eternity (probably only 1-2 minutes in reality), I stomped to the bottom of the stairs and yelled, “Stop the yelling. We don’t yell in this house!” As soon as I heard the words leave my mouth, I shook my head. Did I just yell at my children to stop yelling? That’s just wrong on so many levels.

  • Yelling didn’t model the behavior I wanted them to see. What else can I say about this? Yelling is bad modeling…unless you want children that yell to get their point across.
  • Yelling prevents learning. Our children, like people in general, enter into the “fight or flight” mode when someone yell at them, even if that someone is a parent. In the “fight or flight” mode, a person focuses on self-protection and, as a result, really can’t learn. Their learning is frozen in fear and all their internal resources are mobilized for self-protection. There is no learning or rational thought, only the buzz and frazzle of confused self-protection.
  • Yelling sabotages our parent-child relationship. It severs the connection between you and your child and replaces it with fearful self-protection. It scrambles your child’s brain, interfering with their ability to relate. Remember, the parent-child relationship forms the foundation of effective parenting. After all, rules without relationship leads to rebellion.
  • Yelling plugs up our children’s ears. It teaches them that they don’t really have to listen until we yell. A simple, quiet request goes unheeded when yelling is our general practice. They have learned to not listen until they hear you yell. 
  • Yelling models disrespect and we want our children to learn respect. Children, like all people, deserve our respect, even during discipline.

It’s true. I yelled at my children to stop yelling. Not one of my finer parenting moments. Fortunately, I caught my discrepancy and my children, like all children, are extremely gracious. They allowed room for “do-over.” I walked up the stairs and went into the room where they argued. We took a moment to talk about their argument, my yelling, and the fact that we really “don’t want to yell in this house.” Another moment to resolve their disagreement, at least to my satisfaction, and life returned to normal. Next time I opened my mouth to yell up the stairs at my children, I remembered that day and smiled. Then I walked up the stairs. Even before I got to the top of the stairs, my children started arguing more quietly and with greater civility. I smiled. Maybe we were all learning after all.

Your Child’s Learning Curve on Criticism

Children learn through naturally occurring rewards and losses, natural consequences. Behaviors that bring a natural reward tend to increase while behaviors that result in a loss decrease. In other words, children learn from experience. Parents, however, can interfere with this learning in a subtle way, often without even knowing it. Fortunately, you can avoid interfering with your child’s ability to learn from experience by limiting this one behavior—criticism.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggests that parental criticism interferes with a child’s ability to learn through the natural rewards and losses they experience every day. To say in more directly, criticizing your child will hinder their ability to learn from natural consequences.

But not all “criticism” is the same. For instance, “constructive criticism” instructs. A child who asks a parent to check their essay or offer advice on improving their tennis swing actually invites “constructive criticism” because they know it will help them grow. When given well, “constructive criticism” is given in kindness and is couched in concern for and interest in your child. “Constructive criticism” will not interfere with your children’s ability to learn. Instead, it will enhance your children’s ability to learn.

In a similar manner, “corrective criticism” can help your children learn and grow by addressing misbehavior. At its best, “corrective criticism” addresses the behavior, not the child. As a result, it does not make a judgment about the child or their character. “Corrective criticism” also places the behavior to change within the larger, more positive perspective of your child by acknowledging that the misbehavior does not define your child. It implies or even explicitly states that the misbehavior is not a reflection of their true self and their true values.

The damaging criticism referred to in this research is “corrosive criticism.” “Corrosive criticism” is often given in anger. It often demeans the child. It may involve sarcasm, humiliation, or shaming. “Corrosive criticism” hurts. Our children may incorporate the words of such criticism into their belief system and begin to feel inferior and inadequate. “Corrosive criticism” fills our children’s minds with self-contempt and guilt. It weighs on their mind and makes them doubt themselves and their interpretation of the world around them. It interferes with their ability to learn from natural consequences. (The three types of criticism taken from The Use and Abuse of Parental Criticism with Adolescents | Psychology Today.)

If you want your children to learn to the best of their ability from the natural consequences of daily living, avoid “corrosive criticism.” Do not use sarcasm, put-downs, or shaming to discipline or punish. Avoid all name-calling. Instead, learn to discipline in love with the goal of encouraging, instructing, and lifting your children up. As you do, they will learn from your healthy discipline and from the natural consequences of daily life. That’s a “double whammy” of growing maturity.

Six Common Parenting Mistakes

Parenting is both one of the greatest joys of life and one of the most difficult tasks of life. In spite of the many parenting help books, your child does not come with an instruction manual. We know generalities and principles to apply, but every child is unique. Every child demands something just a little bit different than the others. If you have more than one child, you know this to be true. Still, we know some principles that apply across the board. And we know some parenting actions that just don’t work well. In fact, here are six common parenting mistakes you can avoid.

  1. Making comparisons. Comparing our children to their siblings or another child invalidates our children’s uniqueness. It makes them doubt their own worth. Instead of comparing, celebrate their unique personality and strengths.
  2. Invalidating feelings. We all hate to see our child emotionally or physically hurt. For many, it actually hurts to see their child in pain. We quickly rush in and try to make them feel better by saying, “You’re okay.” Actually, they wouldn’t be crying or upset if they were okay. They are hurt. Telling them they’re ok may actually make them feel worse. The more effective approach is to acknowledge their emotions. Give them a hug and label what they might be feeling. Here is a great way to make your children’s emotions your friend and ally.
  3. Global praise. Telling a child “You’re really good at that” or “Great job” or “Super” may actually backfire. It can contribute to the creation of what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset.” Children with “fixed mindset” give up more easily and may even avoid challenges. Instead, offer a specific praise by acknowledging an aspect of their activity like and why you like it. “That was a great throw to first base.” “I really like your choice of colors in that picture, especially the yellow.” Follow it up with curiosity. “How did you keep you balance throwing that ball?” “What led to you choose those colors?” And acknowledge the effort that contributed to their work. “Your hard work is paying off. You’re catching more hard-hit balls.” These comments will contribute to a “growth mindset.”
  4. Turning to your child with your problems. Too often I hear a parent talk to their child about problems at work, frustrations with housework, or anger at a spouse. Your problems are not your child’s problems. They are too young and too emotionally immature to manage your problems. Instead, take your concerns up with your spouse, your boss, or a peer. Let your child enjoy their childhood. Resolve your marital issues with your spouse (and a therapist if necessary) so your child can enjoy the benefits of happily married parents.
  5. Name-calling. Of course, avoid all name-calling. Avoid words like “stupid,” “lazy,” “fat,” or any other label. We need to also avoid more subtle name-calling like calling your child “spoiled” or “just like your father.” Even calling your child names in jest can have a negative effect. Rather than name-calling, remember you are the adult—wiser, stronger, and more mature. Don’t resort to childish name-calling. Be the adult and talk to your child.
  6. Jumping in to solve their problems. Our children thrive when we let them experience the consequences of their choices; when we give them the opportunity to solve their own problems rather than jumping in to fix it for them. So, before you jump in to “help them out,” ask yourself whose problem you are fixing. If it is their problem, give them the opportunity to fix it. You can stand in their corner but let them win the match.

Avoid these six parenting mistakes. Your child will be glad you did.

The Perfectly Inadequate Parent

Have you ever worried about your skills as a parent? Have you ever just hoped you were doing a “good enough” job as a parent…and still had your doubts? Have you ever thought, “I have no idea what I’m doing… hopefully not destroying my children”?  If you answered “yes” to any of those question, I have good news.

First, welcome to the world of honest parenting. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. We all fall short. We all make mistakes; and we all learn as we go. We are a work in progress, a group of perfectly inadequate parents…and that is great news! Our times of “falling short” of perfection while doing our best to lovingly parent our children actually benefits our children. That leads me to the next benefit of being a perfectly inadequate parent.

Second, our children learn from our shortcomings and mistakes.  Our shortcomings give our children the opportunity to learn how to manage stress in an imperfect work. Our mistakes allow our children to learn how to handle their own mistakes by watching how we handle our mistakes. Our ability to learn and grow through our mistakes, to accept responsibility for our mistakes, and apologize for our mistakes teaches our children to do the same. In other words, our shortcomings provide our children with the opportunity to learn how to manage the stress and “momentary hiccups” they are bound to experience in our imperfect world of relationships.

Third, being a perfectly inadequate parent makes us aware of our need to ask for help. We need to gather a community of other parents (young and old) who will lend us their eyes to see how we might improve, their ears to listen empathetically to our concerns, their shoulders upon which to cry, and their mouths to voice encouragement. We need a community with which to celebrate the joys of parenting as well as share the emotional burden of parenting. Our shortcomings drive us to that community…and that’s good news for us and our children.

Let me repeat: if you feel like you’re struggling as a parent, as if you’re inadequate, that’s good news. It means you care. You love your children…and you want to be the best and most loving parent you can. That “love covers a multitude of sins.” When you love and connect with your children, they will learn and grow even through your shortcomings. Our children learn positive lessons through our mistakes and our successes when we begin and end by building a genuine, loving relationship with them (see An Amazing Parenting Insight Learned in Three Parts). In other words, parenting that flows from a loving relationship with our children will turn our perfectly inadequate parenting into perfect parenting.

Parenting: Power or Love?

Parenting has become a confusing adventure these days. The advice we find on-line or in the parenting section of the bookstore only adds to the confusion. In developmental psychology classes we learn that parenting styles fall along two continuums. One continuum represents rules or control. The other continuum represents relationship, warmth, and acceptance. You can review the excellent “Parenting Style Infographic” in this excellent article and learn everything you want to know about the four parenting styles represented along these two continuums. It’s great information.

I often see parents falling into one of the three less effective parenting style in this model because they believe they need to exert power and control to “shape their children” into mature adults. (Unfortunately, these children often don’t know how to act mature without their parent’s control.) Some parents exert power to build their children “according to the blueprints” provided them by parents, churches, or peers. (These children often rebel to exert their own independence.) Still other parents respond to their own fear by adding more control, exerting more power in an effort to keep their children safe. (These children often take extra risks to escape the powerful control their parents exert.)  In all this, they miss the most important aspect of being a parent, nurturing the love and relationship their children crave and need. So, when I ran across these few quotes on power and love, I had to share them with you. Read them over slowly and take time to consider what they might mean for our styles of parenting.

  • “The opposite of Love is not hate, but power.” –C.S. Lewis
  • “They fear love because it creates a world they can’t control.” –George Orwell
  • “When love rules power disappears. When power rules love disappears.” –Paulo Coelho
  • “Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.” –Carl Jung
  • “Love is the opposite of power. That’s why we fear it so much.” –Gregory David Roberts
  • “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” –Jimi Hendrix
  • “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” –1 Peter 4:8
  • “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” –1 Corinthians 13:4-7

I know we often want to exert power in our effort to shape children into “responsible adults” or “make them listen” or teach them how to “get by in the world.” But power leads to rebellion. And really, isn’t love where the true power to transform resides? Doesn’t love actually nurture the growth we desire in our children? Some would go as far as to say that “All bad behavior is really a request for love, attention, or validation” (Kimberly Giles). I agree.

Let me summarize by saying that the job of a parent is the job of a miracle-worker. It is a miracle to take a newborn baby and nurture them until they become a mature, independent, responsible adult…a miracle. As Marianne Williamson said, “The way of the miracle-worker is to see all human behavior as one of two things: either love, or a call for love.”

It’s Not All Bad…It’s a Wonderful Opportunity

So, you or your child have been diagnosed with ADHD. For many, this diagnosis carries a negative connotation. But did you know that people with ADHD often have skills that other people wish they had? Let me share a few.

  • Children with ADHD can often focus on a task they enjoy or find interesting for hours. They exhibit a “hyper-focus” in areas of interest and enjoyment. This level of focus leads to improved performance and efficiency. I have a friend who has amazing talent on the piano and as a magician because of this skill of “hyper-focus” on areas of interest. Of course, helping find your child’s interest allows them to enjoy this skill. As they experience improvement in their skill level, it will boost their confidence as well.
  • Children with ADHD have a high level of energy. As a result, they can often excel at sports or other physical activities, especially when combined with the focus described above. Another friend from my twenties noted that martial arts helped him manage his ADHD. His interest allowed him to focus in this area. His practice expended energy and helped him have periods of calm. And he quickly became exceptionally good.
  • Children with ADHD are often highly creative. They may approach tasks from a different perspective and solve problems in unique ways. As a result, consulting a person with ADHD can boost problem-solving options. One of my friends with ADHD is an excellent comedian and playwright. He can present important information for personal growth with a humorous flair and energy that really “sticks with” the audience.
  • Children with ADHD are often spontaneous and courageous. They enjoy unplanned moments, and those moments create wonderful memories. They can teach us to enjoy the moment as well.

You can help your child make the most of these skills by involving them in activities that capitalize on the skills they possess. That may mean involving them in sports, creative activities like music, dance, or drama, or research-oriented clubs that encourage creative problem-solving.

Overall, raising a child with ADHD can demand a great deal of energy. However, when we recognize the skills they have, and capitalize on those skills, we can enjoy watching them grow more confident and talented in life. After all, people with ADHD have a great deal to offer the world, a tremendous amount of emotional, intellectual, and physical resources we desperately need. As parents, we can help prepare them to share their emotional, intellectual, and physical skills with the family, the community and even the world.

The Fantastic Duo of Giving: An Experiment with Toys

Several young couples have told me about the vast number of toys in their home. They have so many toys that some even remain unopened. Their children have grown tired of other toys… now they lay in a corner collecting dust. Stuffed animals that once lined the bed are now stuffed in a closet. Broken Barbie Dolls lay under the bed forgotten. And, of course there are the boxes and wrappings that our children found more fun to play with than the expensive toys the boxes protected! It all makes me wonder: how many toys do our children need?

With this in mind, I propose an experiment. A challenging experiment that you and your child will find rewarding when it is all said and done. It’s an experiment to thin out the toys. Here are the steps involved.

  1. Team up with your child and talk about the virtues of sharing and gratitude. You might also want to pick a nice name for the project, like Team Generosity or The Great Toy Giveaway.
  2. As a team, pick out the toys you will give away to those who have less. You can identify the toys no longer used to give away and choose a couple more to represent an extra level of generosity and caring.
  3. Decide where you want to give the toys to. You might choose the Salvation Army, a toy lending library, or even someone you know. You can also learn about children who might have a need through an area social service agency or church.
  4. Pick a time in which you and your child (The Fantastic Duo of Giving) can deliver the toys to the charity the two of you agreed upon.
  5. Deliver the toys.
  6. Finally, talk about the experience with your child. What, if anything, was difficult? What was easy?  Now that it is finished, how do you both feel?

Not only does this experiment allow you and your child to declutter the toy room, but it also allows you to spend time together as well (and isn’t that what children really want?). As a bonus, your child will likely experience the joy of generosity and gratitude as they complete this process…and that experience may just prompt more great team giveaways. (For more read One Ingredient of Happy Children.)

The Job Every Teen Has & Every Parent Struggles With

Adolescents have a job in our society. Their job receives no monetary reward; and many parents struggle with letting their adolescent do their job. The job is to become their own person, to prepare themselves emotionally and mentally to leave home. To complete this job, our teens often withdraw some from the parent-child relationship. They spend more time with their peers and disclose less to their parents. However, a study involving 1,001 13-to 16-years-old teens suggests a way in which parents can encourage better communication with their teen during this time and, as a result, promote more teen disclosure even while their teen does their job of becoming independent. The researchers had teens watch a parent and teen converse about difficult situations. The teens then rated the conversations and the parent-teen relationship they witnessed. What did the researchers discover? What did the teens say in their interpretation of the conversations?

  1. When a parent was genuinely engaged with their teen in conversation, teens felt more authentic and connected to their parent.
  2. When a parent was visibly attentive, the teen was more likely to “open up” and engage in more self-disclosure.

That’s all well and good. But what exactly does “genuinely engaged” and “visibly attentive” look like? According to the researchers of this study, these skills involve at least 4 factors.

  1. Maintaining good eye contact.
  2. Engaging in nonverbal communication such as head nodding.
  3. Engaging in verbal acknowledgment and gratitude to the teen for “opening up.”
  4. Verbally and openly appreciating the teen’s honesty as well as their effort in sharing.

I would also add factors five through eight as factors involved in being “genuinely engaged” and “visibly attentive:”

  1. Verbal validation of their struggle to “make the right choice” or “do the right thing.”
  2. Statements explicitly validating and labeling their emotion in response to the difficult situation.
  3. Asking nonjudgmental questions to clarify the situation and assure you understand. A curiosity about your teen’s thoughts and emotions about the situation. A genuine interest in how they view the situation and how it impacts them.
  4. Listen. Don’t lecture. Don’t problem-solve. Listen

These skills add up to “attentive listening” and “genuine engagement” with your teen. “Attentive listening” and “genuine engagement” with your teen results in greater intimacy and better parent-teen communication…and that’s a beautiful thing.

Book Review: Hunt, Gather, Parent

Michaeleen Doucleff, the author of Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans, was looking for guidance on raising her strong-willed, rambunctious 3-year-old. As any good investigative journalist would do, she began to research the “options.” And the most effective ideas and parenting guidance she discovered came from sources flung to the far ends of the world. With daughter in tow, she visited a variety of indigenous peoples—a Mayan village in Mexico, Inuit families in the Arctic Circle, and Hadzabe families in Tanzania—to gain some very useful parenting advice. And I loved it. Some of the reviews I read were critical of various aspects of this book. For instance, they accused her of a gender bias, espousing parenting techniques of indigenous peoples as though they have no counterparts in Western parenting guidance (in fact, they are similar to Montessori or RIE parenting), and “framing tribal parents as eternally happy, and Western parents…as miserable victims of circumstances.”

I don’t know about all that…but I do know our society gets so caught up in finding fault and criticizing where a work (in our opinion) falls short , where we think it won’t work, or simply what’s wrong with it…rather than looking at the good gifts the work offers for many situations and people. And Hunt, Gather, Parent offers many excellent gifts. It offers wonderful advice to parents about effective ways of raising their children, advice that both fathers and mothers can apply.

This advice is founded, in part, on a parent’s perspective of children. Are children simply miniature adults that we can expect to behave appropriately? Or are they children who need to learn how to behave, manage emotions, and do tasks we call chores? Hadzabe parents offered Ms. Doucleff an excellent answer. In addition to this, Michaeleen Doucleff learned practical ways to remain calm when her child engages in tantrum behavior, how to encourage cooperation rather than control, and how to meet personalized needs rather than expect developmental milestones. She also talks with a variety of experts along the way to learn more about what she was witnessing and putting into practice.

All in all, this book is filled with gifts for every parent—great ideas and practical takeaways every parent will find helpful, all wrapped in a warm storytelling style. Use what you can, and you will not only find your children’s behavior improving, but your relationship with your children improving as well. And isn’t that what we all want?

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