Thursday, October 12, 2006

Children and Security
This post: Laying out the Serious Groundwork
Tomorrow's Post: Let's have some Fun!

By the time a child reaches the age of two or three, he starts weaving an emotional pattern that determines how he responds to life. The threads he uses are from a number of sources, one thread being his in-born personality. Perhaps the strongest threads are spun from the child's observations of the way people respond to him.

By age six, a child has already completed an emotional tapestry that falls somewhere between one of two opposing attitudes:

Attitude A) I am loved. I am secure. I want to grow up and try new things. We can picture this tapesty as being bright, colorful, and laced with golden threads.

Attitude B) I am not loved. I am insecure. The world is a frightening place. I don't want to try new things; I just want to stay in a zone where I feel safe." We can picture this tapestry as being dark and somber. This gloomy tapestry may set up a child to have problems with anxiety, despression, and shyness later in life.

Many child development experts believe that once a six-year old hangs his tapestry on the walls of his mind, it is there for life. I disagree. I believe that God has the power to renew and transform our hearts and minds at any age.

However, as parents, we do want to give our children the best emotional start that we can. We want them to be secure enough to face new experiences and to master new skills.

Since a child is maturing, it's only natural that we and other adults in the child's life take note of his progress. Have you ever thought about how much of a young child's feedback from others is based on one of two things: 1) His or her physical development and 2) His or her accomplishments in learning and behavior?

This feedback is both positive and negative. We cannot always control what is said to or in front of our child. Other people comment, "Suzy, what a pretty girl you are," or "Spencer, you're learned how to tell time! Aren't you clever?," or "Mark, you are growing so tall and strong," or "Alice, you're always such a good girl?" Conversely, people may ignore Suzy's sister, Marie, who isn't as cute. They may wonder aloud why Dan, Mark's cousin, is so short for his age. They may say to Alice's friend, Lilly, "Why can't you act as nice as Alice does?", and they may burst Spencer's bubble when they realize that while he can tell time, he has not yet learned how to count change.

As parents, we also contribute to this picture by praising positive behavor and by correcting negative behavior. Here, we do have control over the feedback and how it is delivered. Rather than speaking idly, as in the examples above, we can make sure that our comments are well-thought out and beneficial.

Carefully delivered positive feedback is a wonderful thing. How delightful it is to rejoice in the gifts that God has given to a particular child! In the same vein, how sweet it is for parents and child to celebrate the child's accomplishments. After all, God recorded this about our Lord Jesus, "And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men." Don't we want our children to develop in these areas, as well? Proverbs 20:11 tell us, "Even a child is known by what he does, by whether his conduct is pure and right." Don't we want our children to conduct themselves in a way that is pure and right?

We are all inspired to reach higher goals when we receive encouragement along the way. By pointing to a child's gifts and accomplishments, parents and other adults can help a child identify, develop, and enjoy his particular strengths. As the child grows toward adulthood, he can begin to use those strengths in the service of the Lord.

In the historically based movie, "Chariots of Fire", Scottish preacher Eric Lidell recognized that God had gifted him with the ability to run. One of his sisters chastized him for competing in track meets instead of going directly to the mission field. Eric said, "God has made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure." God used Eric's speed to land him a spot on Great Britain's Olympic team. At the Olympics, Eric was stunned to find that one of his events was scheduled for a Sunday. He humbly, but firmly refused to participate in the event, despite pressure from the crown and despite attention from the media. He ended up winning a medal in another event. More importantly, he showed the world the importance of placing Christ first in priority. Later, Eric did go on to the mission field, and he lost his life there.

Had Eric doubted his gift for running or God's purpose for endowing him with this gift, he would never have had the confidence to pursue his talent. He never would have made the Olympic track team. He would have missed the chance to share his faith in front of the entire world. Eric's ability to run and his enjoyment of running became a tool in God's hands.

This incident demonstrates how we want to steer our children's thinking. It's good for a child to think, "That lady at the store said I'm growing tall and strong. I'm glad God is helping me to grow." And, it's fine for a child to exclaim happily, "Listen, Mommy, I can sing the ABC song." Celebrating little milestones like these builds a child's confidence for the next challenge that comes his or her way.

Just as positive feedback can be helpful, negative feedback can also be a tool for learning. It's an inescapable fact that a child will experience both constructive criticism and thoughtless, hurtful comments throughout his earthly lifetime. It's part of our job as parents to teach a child how to respond when this happens. He must learn to grow better and not bitter when someone confronts him about his sins or mistakes. He must learn to hold to his convictions, even when those convictions bring him censure from others. He must learn how to calmly work things out when a friend, co-worker, or family member disagrees with him on some point.

If we shield a child from all negative feedback, his emotional and spiritual growth will be stunted. However, a young child thrives best when the positive feedback outweighs the negative. Particularly when a child is passing through the age of two, we often feel like we have to constantly say, "No. No. No." It's crucial that at the same time, we are also saying in words and actions, "I love you. I love you. I love you."

Positive or negative, feedback from others is an accent thread in our emotional tapestry. So, too, our own opinion of our physical attribures and our outward performance. These two strands, however, are not meant to be the dominant threads. In order to truly hold our tapestry together, we need stronger material. We need the confidence that comes through God's love for us.

Toddlers and preschoolers lack the maturity to sort all this out. Without guidance from parents, a toddler may easily get the wrong idea. The child may internalize adult reactions in a way that makes him think he is valued only on the basis of his physical development or his performance. This view of life places the toddler on shaky ground. No matter how a child excels in a certain area, there is always another child who is prettier, smarter, stronger, faster, or more obedient.

If pretty Suzy gets the idea that she is loved mainly because of her beauty, how will she respond when her mother compliments Ginger's lovely blonde curls?If Jack gets all of his security from being "the good boy", how will he respond when he goofs up and disobeys Daddy?

Obviously, if a child continues to be hampered by a performance-oriented approach to life, he will run into deeper and deeper problems. Perhaps, his talent or physical attributes might carry him into middle age. Eventually, however, raw bodily strength or beauty diminish with time. Likewise, no one can achieve or sustain perfect performance in any area of life. Most of all, we can never be "good" enough to earn the love of a holy God. We have to learn how to rest in God's grace.

So, as parents, how do we help a child found their emotional well-being on a solid foundation. How do we teach him that he is loved and that he can learn new skills and cope with new experiences?

Since we are training a child, we must deal with his outward performance. Obviously, we will also care about his physical health, growth, and neat appearance as well. But, we don't content ourselves with merely achieving a child's outward performance. We go deeper. We win the child's heart with our love. We love the child not on the basis of his achievements, but simply because he is our child. More importantly, we train our children to rely on God's perfect love.

We help our child choose love as the dominant thread that he weaves into his emotional tapestry. (A healthy fear of the Lord is right up there, too, but that's another subject for another post).

One way to do this is to make God's love the last thing on a child's mind when he goes to sleep and the first thing on his mind when he wakes up.

At bedtime, set aside time for a short chat and a prayer. This time can be about any topic. As you prepare to leave the room and turn out the lights, however, end by commenting on God's love for the child.

Sing a simple song about God's love. "Jesus Loves Me," is an obvious example. Or, read a picture book that talks about God's love. Perhaps, you can help the child memorize a simple verse about God's love, and you can recite it together every night until he knows it by heart.
Help the child to think of specific demonstrations of God's love he can be thankful for.

Talk about something you experienced during the day that speaks of God's love;

"I saw a bluebird, Mommy," says the child.

"Yes, we saw the bluebird picking the ground for food. God feeds the bluebird. God gives you food to eat, too. God loves the bluebird, and God loves you even more," you reply.

At bedtime, a toddler or preschooler may pop out with some problem that has been troubling him all day. Perhaps, he went into Daddy's office without permission, and he broke a pencil mug. This is weighing on his tender heart, even though neither you or daddy have yet discovered the broken mug. Deal with a troubling incident like this. But, after you have done so, re-direct your child's thoughts back to God's love.

When my children were little, I often let them fall asleep to tape recordings of soothing songs and soothing Bible verses. There are many CD's and tapes that are designed around the theme of God's love. Some are especially meant for bedtime use. When my children reached kindergarten age, we used a devotional book that was themed around the topic of sleeping peacefully in God's love.

If you set your mind to it, you can come up with any number of simple and creative ways to send your child off to dreamland secure in God's love.

In the morning, when the child wakes up, greet him with a hug and the warmest smile you can manage. Use waking up as another chance to recite a verse about God's love. The thought might brighten your own day, as well.

Another way to focus the child's attention to the right source is to look for ways that our child is growing in faith and character. Spend as much or more time talking about that as you do about the child's outer behavior or his physical qualities. Growth in faith and character may be harder to detect than the outward things. But, these matters of the hearts are of primary importance. Proverbs 4:23 teaches us , "Above all, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life."

Finally, the most important way for you to help your child to be secure in God's love is for you to you to grasp this concept for yourself. Studies have shown that young children pick up cues about how to respond to a situation from their mothers. If you habitually react to life with anxiety and insecurity, your child will weave this same pattern into his own emotional tapestry. Don't go off on a guilt trip if you do struggle with insecurity; we all have things we need to work through. Perhaps, for one reason or another, your own emotional tapestry has been damaged and needs to be re-woven. But, do be urgent about growing deeper in God's love.

Paul prayed for the Ephesians to grasp wide and long and wide and deep is the love of Christ and for them to know this love that surpasses knowledge. Pray this often for yourself, your husband, and for each child in your familiy.


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