“It’s just not natural to be a good, kind parent.”
The mother who said these words at a recent Mother/Daughter event certainly seemed good and kind! She was a well-educated, well-respected physician in her community, but she was having a hard time parenting her 14-year-old daughter.
“It’s just not natural,” she repeated again with growing emphasis. “What’s natural for me is to be angry, frustrated, and inconsistent. I try one thing and it doesn’t work. So then I try something else. I just wish there was some kind of manual. Parenting is harder than anyone ever tells you. I mean, they come into the world crying, after all. That should be some kind of sign as to what’s to come.”
You may have felt the same way. (You probably do often if you have a 14-year-old!) Inconsistency happens. You are going to struggle. You may fail at your intentions. You may get angry or not follow through on your discipline. But even despite these struggles, you can still establish a pattern of consistency in your home.
When you think about the way your parents raised you, what did they value? Faith? Financial security? Appearance? Honesty? And how did your parents communicate those values to you? Did they teach you directly about them? Was it in the choices they made? Was it by the time you spent focused on those ideals? Their values were likely communicated primarily through those three avenues: words, actions, and time.
If your son or daughter was sitting in my counseling office and I asked him or her the same questions, what would he or she say? What would he believe your values to be? What values do your words reflect (and not just your intentions)? What about your time? What about the way you live your life? Identifying your core values as a family and instilling those values in your children will take intentionality, from the time your children are toddlers.
Toddlers and Values
In the toddler years, the majority of your teaching is direct. “Find their eyes,” you may say to your three-year-old daughter when she meets someone new, if manners is one of your top family values. “Find their eyes” is a great example, as a matter of fact, of one of the important ways to communicate your values to toddlers. They are learning volumes in this stage, and your consistency is the best teacher. Here are a few more examples of ways to consistently communicate your family values with toddlers.
• Use key phrases that are repetitive and short. “Find their eyes,” “say please,” and “no touch” are great examples. She will be more likely to pay attention because of the brevity, and more likely to remember because of the repetition.
• Model values. For example, it’s not too early to take your toddler with you to a sick friend’s house. He can draw a picture on a birthday card you’re sending. Give him chances to be a part of the choices you make that reflect your values.
• Explain your choices. Your toddler will watch you a great deal, but she often won’t understand the reasons behind your actions. Before you walk out the door to Bible study, tell your daughter, “Mommy is going to learn more about Jesus.” Let her see the picture of the boy you’re sponsoring in Haiti and tell her why.
As basic as it sounds, toddlers need to know why you value the things you do. They need you to teach them directly and explain the choices you make. And they need you to consistently carry those same values into their childhood years.
Children and Values
Childhood is a rich time of learning. In Wild Things, David and Stephen call a boy between the ages of five and eight “The Lover.” In Raising Girls, we talk about girls from six to ten as being in the “Adventurous Years,” with one of the primary characteristics being their responsiveness. Kids this age continue to want to please you, as their parents, and they have a much greater capacity for understanding and responding to truth than in their toddler years. As a result, they are ripe and ready for learning what your family values.
• Be concrete. Jean Piaget, a pioneer in the field of psychology, called this stage of development the Concrete Operational Stage: “The child thinks in terms of concrete, existing objects. He is able to conserve, order, classify, but does not hypothesize or use abstractions. It is the third stage of intellectual development in which the child is not yet ready to address ‘possibilities,’ but attends only to the given objects and figures in its environment.” So, for example, if your son just hit his little sister, responding concretely would mean saying, “Kind little boys do not hit their sisters” and taking him to time out. Saying, “What would it mean for you to be kind to your sister the next time this happens?” will only confuse him. In order to teach him in these years, it is imperative that we understand and speak in the way he learns.
• Make it fun. Children love an adventure. At our summer camp, we took the second through fourth graders to a tea room to show off the manners they had been learning. What kind of experience could you create with your child that would reinforce the words you are using with action and with fun?
• Focus on the positive. I recently met with a mom and her third-grade daughter. Almost every sentence the mom said centered on what her daughter was doing wrong. “You told me you didn’t have any homework.” “You didn’t clean your room when I asked you to.” As her mom went through the laundry list of offenses, her daughter’s eyes eventually glazed over. Instead, choose to point out the positive—consistently. Tell your child when she makes choices that reflect the values you are trying to teach. You’ll reinforce those values and strengthen your relationship as well.
Teenagers and Values
Teaching teenagers values requires a new type of consistency. Choosing your battles becomes profoundly important. Giving kids the opportunity to learn their values themselves, which involves having chances to fail, is also important. Being a consistent parent requires even more creativity (and maybe tenacity) than ever before.
• Say as much as you can with as few words as you can. I meet with a lot of moms and adolescent girls. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve watched girls dismiss their moms in my office. If you have a teenage daughter, you’ve felt it yourself. I’ve seen a lot of girls who’ve perfected the art of staring toward their moms and uh-huh-ing enough to look like they’re listening. But they’ve usually stopped after the first sentence. So make your words count. Don’t lecture and don’t repeat yourself. Try to compact your thoughts into one or two sentences and then make yourself stop.
• Ask your teenager questions. It is vital for teenagers to learn to think for themselves. They need to develop their own faith and their own values. You have spent years teaching them directly. Much of your teaching now comes through opportunities for them to make mistakes. It also comes through questions. If you watch an important movie together, ask your son what he learned from the movie rather than speaking first. If your son goes on a mission trip, ask him what he learned about himself and about God. Learn to ask good questions to teach him to think for himself, rather than you thinking for him.
• Don’t be afraid to fail. You’re working toward a big picture consistency, but you are going to be inconsistent. As you try to teach values and walk them out in your own choices, you will fail. It may be that you lose your temper, that you forget an important game, or that you make a mistake that has far-reaching consequences. Your teenager will often catch these failures. In this stage of life, she is capable of abstract thought. She can begin to see you as a person and not just as a parent. So give her an opportunity to learn grace from you. Apologize. Ask for her forgiveness and let her know it’s important to ask for and receive God’s. In these years, she’s probably hyper-aware of her own failures too. Your honesty and integrity in your failures will help her accept herself and know Christ better through her own failures.
A Battle Worth Fighting
Why is consistency so important? Because it creates a sense of security for children. It helps them feel safe, grounded. Children crave predictability, and in an age where childhood anxiety is being referred to as an epidemic, predictability and consistency are maybe more important than ever. Teenagers, likewise, crave consistency, even though they may not say it out loud. They need consistent consequences to give them opportunities to both learn from their mistakes and enhance their self-worth.
Consistency isn’t easy, but it’s a battle worth fighting. And it can create a pattern that will not only lend itself to greater security in your children but also to more peace in your home.
This article was adapted from Intentional Parenting: Autopilot Is for Planes (Thomas Nelson 2013) by Sissy Goff, David Thomas & Melissa Trevathan copyright ©2012. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, part of the HarperCollins Christian Publishing ThomasNelson.com
Photo courtesy Philippe Put / Flickr
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