Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Last night, I read an article about a large family in which the parents gave some wise advice. It was similar to something I had learned from parenting classes at church and from wiser, older parents. In this article, the parents suggested that you praise 10 times as much as you offer instructive criticism. They also suggested praising for character more than for other things.
As they pointed out, it's fine to give a little praise for external qualities -- such as appearance or strength. In fact, I do believe that a daughter needs to hear from her father that she is cherished and beautiful to him and that a son also needs to hear from his parents about his manly qualities -- to a certain extent. Children need to know that they are cherished in these ways so that they will not look for affirmation from the wrong sources. However, if the main bulk of your encouragement to your children is about achievements or external appearance, they will focus on these things to an unhealthy extent. It is far better to praise children for character qualities they display.
Even when praising a child for receiving a reward or for achieving good grades, focus on the character behind it. "You got an A! Isn't it great to have studied well and to have done your best? Way to go."
The parents I read about are so committed to this line of positive praise that they have created a list of helpful character traits which they post in their home. This is as much for them as for the children, if I understand their thinking correctly. It helps them keep in mind the character traits they are trying to instill in their children. When someone displays a quality in line with the character trait, they praise the child by saying something like, "I am so happy for you. You showed thoroughness in how you completed that task." (Thoroughness is on their list.)
I remember learning when we still had children at home how powerful positive encouragement is in the formation of a child's character and in their sense of security. It is so important that the bulk of our teaching toward our children be positive, saving rebuke for necessary times. I think of that verse in Colossians that says our conversation should be full of grace and seasoned with salt. Grace is the main dish; salt is the seasoning. How much better all of our relationships would be if we put this into practice -- or, I should say, how much better all of my relationships would be if I keep that ratio in mind. Spouses, neighbors, friends at church will all respond to us better if we speak in this way.
I'm sure some parents have temperaments which lend themselves easily to noticing and commenting on the good. Others of us tend to spotlight most that which needs correcting. For some of us, developing a positive mindset takes a lot of prayer and self-training, so that we truly do seek out the best in others -- especially the good in our children. Times to monitor our own outlook are when a) family life is super busy and we are bothered by those things that interrupt the workings of our household b)we are alarmed because one of our children is struggling with some harmful attitudes and 3) we see a weakness in our child that reminds us of a weakness that we, ourselves, have struggled with. In these cases, we will have to work harder to notice and encourage the positive, even as we deal with that which is unlovely in our children. For me, fear for a child's future tended to bring out the temptation to nag and speak harshly, rather than to deal decisively but gently with a child's conduct.
Of course, we should never ignore discipline problems. There is most definitely a time for the salty rebuke. In fact, stern but loving words applied at just the right time can be lifesavers. We've all benefited from much needed correction. However, if a child is fed a steady diet of all the little things he's doing wrong, without positive direction to balance it, he will likely do the following: 1) tune it all out so that he does not hear correction when it is needed and 2) become so discouraged that he finds it easier to simply give into misbehavior.
Often times, when our children hit the rough patches involved in growing up, they lose faith for what the Lord is doing in their lives. It is then that they most need us to have faith for them. If we show by our conversation and our attitude that we believe the best for our children, they will be more secure. Even in their hardest times, our children display positive qualities. If we notice and recognize even the faintest steps toward righteous behavior, we can inspire our children to want to develop positive qualities. We can also say, even when strongly correcting an alarming attitude or behavior, that we believe our child will be able to overcome their present struggle.
Also, when training our children in life, we must not assume that they know what it means to be responsible or grateful or faithful. They need us to help define for them what those things mean. We can use examples from the scriptures and, to a lesser extent, from wholesome literature and entertainment to show them what these things mean. But, we also need to help them see in their own lives what is and what isn't on target. That is another place where positive reinforcement of character development is helpful to the child.
Before we rush in to correct disrespect, for example, we must make sure that they know what it means to be respectful and what it means to be disrespectful. We can say, "When you rolled your eyes, what thoughts were in your mind? Did you know that to me, that looked as if you were showing disrespect?" "When you obeyed so quickly and without complaining, I felt very respected by you." Once you have set a foundation with both positive direction that they are on target and some feedback where they are off target, you can be sure that your expectations of them will be in line with their reasonable understanding. Then, you can encourage and discipline with the confidence that you are not frustrating your child.
Finally, I believe that children need to hear they are loved simply because they are created by God. They need to know that we love them no matter what. They need to be able to talk to us about the real fears, hurts, anger, and struggles to be godly that they experience in life. Otherwise, they will learn to be fake, rather than to be authentically faithful.
Many adults struggle with insecurity, because somewhere in childhood they got the idea that they must earn love and acceptance totally on the basis of their personal achievements. They are never at ease within themselves, for they are locked in an impossible quest to live up to their own and everyone else's expectations. They feel they are only loved by God and others according to their latest success in life, and that feeling of success never lasts long enough to bring peace. So, as soon as they achieve one thing, they drive themselves toward a new goal. Their motivation is not a healthy desire to bring glory to God, but an attempt to fill up an empty heart.
Sometimes, parents inadvertently add to such insecurity by offering loving words and attention mostly when a child excels in some outstanding way. If a child internalizes the idea that he must win acceptance solely through self-effort, he may have a hard time understanding and accepting the grace of God. He may also have a hard time extending grace to others who do not measure up to his own personal standards.
Obviously, a child's conduct and his achievements do matter. These things affect his relationship with the Lord, his relationships with others, and his own satisfaction in life. Thus, as parents, we should motivate our children toward faithful obedience to the Lord and toward excellence in love, faith, and character. We need to be careful to do this in a way that is founded on a healthy love for and fear of the Lord, however.
Our children blossom so much when we raise them in a positive, love-saturated atmosphere. Then, when they do need discipline and correction, they are able to hear it and apply it. I think that the ratio suggested in the article I read is a great one -- ten times the amount of positive encouragement for every bit of correction. There is a time for everything...