September 4, 2018

How to Reap a Good Harvest

Helping our kids develop a sense of personal responsibility is difficult.

Many blame what they call an “entitlement mentality” common in modern culture, and it’s true that such an attitude is prevalent these days. However, the problem goes all the way back to Adam and Eve – when Eve blamed the serpent for her decision to eat the fruit and Adam blamed both Eve and God Himself (Genesis 3.12) for his choice. And it’s not limited to historical figures and children. If we were to honestly tune in to those of all ages around us – and, frankly, to our own thoughts, words, and actions – we would quickly see a victim stance running rampant. The fact is that our natural human tendency is toward deflection and blame-shifting.

However, just because this is our default doesn’t mean it’s okay. Scripture calls us to seek maturity (1 Corinthians 13.11), which includes being able to accept the truth that decisions have consequences, whether positive or negative.

Of course, we must start with ourselves, because important character qualities are more often caught than taught. If our kids hear us always blaming the other guy for problems we face and/or chalking up victories to “fate,” we’ll communicate an entitlement/victim worldview which they’ll inevitably adopt as their own. But if they see us taking appropriate responsibility – acknowledging that I was cut off by another driver because I didn’t actually signal properly or, conversely, explaining how I know I did well with a presentation because I took time to prepare – our kids will begin to grasp the nature of natural consequences.

And when we have credibility with them in this regard, they’ll be more able to accept our “therefore statements” about their choices.

Delivery also matters. When my child messes up – whether by accident or as a result of actual disobedience – it’s my responsibility as the adult in the room to address the issue calmly. If I yell and rant, I not only damage my child emotionally but also wreck my credibility with her. Conversely, when I sit with her and rationally address a problem using “therefore statements,” she’ll more likely see the connection between her decisions and the consequences they bring. And when she’s done something well, it’s much more productive for me to show her with “therefore statements” how her good choices led to a positive outcome than to simply say, “That’s awesome!” If I want my child to know how to replicate a good outcome, she must understand the decision pathway that got her there.

Intentional consistency with all of this is hard. But as we decide to take personal responsibility for parenting in a healthy way, we will see good fruit over time. To paraphrase Galatians 6.9 in a way we surely hope the Lord will speak to us one day: “I saw that you did not grow weary in doing good. Therefore, you reaped a good harvest in due time.”


August 21, 2018

Evidence-Grounded Grace

Recently, one of my daughters had a freak accident with her phone. As she was holding it in her hand while crouching to sit on the edge of her bed, it slipped from her grasp and landed right in a cup of water she’d put next to the bed earlier in the day. She yanked it out instantly and saw that it still worked so she felt she’d dodged a bullet. I did too. But later that day, the phone malfunctioned and only then did we hear about the “rice trick” we now know to be a common fix for phones that get wet.

As she realized the phone might be dead, my daughter was beside herself. She didn’t care about not having the phone; instead, she began to sob and said, “You and Dad bought that for Christmas. It was expensive and I ruined it.” She didn’t say it outright but I knew she was also thinking, “I’m a horrible, irresponsible person!”

If she’d set the phone next to a sink full of water, we might have been able to say, “You probably could have foreseen that putting your phone there wasn’t a good idea.” But what actually happened was clearly an accident; there’s really no way she could have guessed that her phone would slip from her hand just as she was sitting down and at just the “right” angle to land in the cup she’d set nearby hours earlier.

And her instant response was deep remorse. The evidence before me led to only one conclusion: “Honey, accidents happen. You weren’t doing anything irresponsible. In fact, I know because of how you’re reacting now that you mean to be responsible.” My husband felt the same way because, though she sometimes makes avoidable, youthful mistakes – just as all kids do – the overarching desire we see in her day in and day out is to be mature and “grown up.”

Though we all believed it was too late, we eventually put the phone in a bag of rice as a last-ditch effort. When we told our daughter that we’d decided to pay for a replacement, she protested; she thought she should pay for it herself. Of course, that desire was further evidence that grace was appropriate.

When I think about it, I’ve been in many situations with both of my kids over the years where I’ve been able to tell them that evidence – whether positive or negative – doesn’t lie. And, whether the issue at hand has been about one of them not wanting to accept a compliment or not wanting to own a mistake, when I’ve been able to calmly and directly point out what I’ve seen and heard, the tone and direction of the conversation always shifts.

Though still sad that her accident would cost us some money, my daughter stopped beating herself up after we extended evidence-grounded grace to her. Clearly communicating what we see and know about various situations in which our kids find themselves really does make a difference.

Oh, and by the way…the rice worked after all! By the next day, her phone was working good as new. More importantly, of course, her self-talk and our relationship were both working too.


Photo Credit: Second Wave Recycling

August 7, 2018

Wielding Great Power

“You’re not a good reader. Oh, and your spelling is a mess.”

Can you imagine how my child would have felt if I’d told her that?

The fact is that one of my daughters did “struggle” to learn to read. I see in hindsight that the problem was mainly with me – I was pushing her with formal instruction just because she’d turned five rather than watching for real developmental readiness – but the observable reality at the time revealed an inability to process phonological concepts. In fact, though she doesn’t have a learning disability, things didn’t click for her with reading until after she’d turned eight. And she wrestled with our crazy English spelling constructs until she was 13, but then seemed to wake up one day able to spell with consistency as she hadn’t before.

Of course, her “delays” concerned me; any good parent wonders and worries when a child struggles in any way, be it academically, physically, emotionally, relationally, or spiritually. And, sadly, my daughter saw some of my anxiety. But I’m thankful I knew in my gut to avoid making negative statements that would influence her identity. In fact, I remember – even when my stomach twisted in knots during a lesson –consciously coaching myself to purposefully encourage and not dishearten her.

“You’re doing great, honey. Yes, you remembered from yesterday how to sound out st-.”

“Wow. You’re on fire today! You spelled seven of the 10 words correctly!”

It turns out that my daughter was simply a “late bloomer” – who also happened to have hyperopia (farsightedness) and an astigmatism. Thus, she simply needed glasses…and time.

Depending on the circumstances, we do, of course, sometimes need to seek more intensive intervention. But even then, it’s imperative that we avoid plastering our kids with negative, identity-defining labels. Instead, we must help them frame their identities positively and properly – for example, a friend purposes to say that her son “has autism but it doesn’t have him” rather than saying he “is autistic.” Kids internalize who they are based primarily on the messages we parents send with our words and actions.

My “struggler” is now a beautiful, mature young lady on the cusp of adulthood. Some spelling constructs still baffle her – after all, our spelling system is a bizarre mishmash where rules are more often broken than followed! – but she’s become a gifted writer, able to describe and challenge with her words in ways far beyond her years. And she absolutely loves reading; not long ago, she was – by choice – delving into Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the works of Emily Dickinson at the same time and has recently chosen to concurrently tackle Wuthering Heights and Alex Haley’s Roots for her homeschool literature assignment, while reading other difficult works for fun.

Imagine how different her adolescence would be if she’d believed that her early “struggles” controlled her identity; I shudder at the thought. Our words wield great power in our kids’ lives. Are you using yours positively, for their long-term well-being?


July 24, 2018

Honesty Builds Trust

One of my main goals as a parent has been for my kids to know they can trust me. And one thing I’ve done to build trust is promising to answer any direct question honestly. Of course, I’ve also been mindful of providing developmentally appropriate responses, so some answers are very short, focused only on the exact question being asked without additional exposition. But I aim to avoid skirting around an issue, no matter how uncomfortable, and I don’t lie in response to any direct question.

Thus, when my seven-year old asked – just as we were pulling into the grocery store parking lot! – how a baby gets into a mommy’s tummy, I took a deep breath, paused to gather my thoughts, and replied, “Well, a daddy’s sperm joins with a mommy’s egg and then a baby starts to grow.” Satisfied, she said, “Oh, okay,” and hopped out of the car. But it clearly stayed on her mind because she announced fifteen minutes later in the middle of the store, “Oh, I get it! The sperm floats over to the egg!” I was embarrassed but didn’t want her to be, so I said, “Yes, you’re exactly right, honey,” before redirecting her attention to helping me find the Goldfish crackers.

We chose to allow our kids to believe in Santa, and we enjoyed the happiness the myth brought them. But when they asked me point-blank if Santa was real, I told them the truth. And when they asked why their aunt was getting a divorce, I didn’t deflect. Instead, I explained the complicated situation as best I could without oversharing.

It’s tough to be this vulnerable with kids. Since they have permission to ask any question with the expectation of an honest answer, I must be mentally prepared for whatever might come my way. And, of course, as they get bigger, so does the nature of the questions they ask. Now that my kids are teens, they ask about my experiences as a young adult, and I have to admit when I made choices I now regret. I hate that – and I always couch my honest answer with the insight I’ve gained over the years in order to show that I realize how my youthful poor decisions weren’t always wise. But in committing to honesty for the sake of building my kids’ trust in me, I don’t sugarcoat the past.

By God’s grace, I see this approach bearing fruit, and I regularly pray that it always will. Recently one of my daughters made a very foolish choice that could have led to extremely serious negative ramifications – and she hid her actions from me. Through what can only have been God’s leading, I discovered her lie and confronted her in love. I was just as upset over the lie as the broader situation, and I was able to say, “Honey, it hurts that you’ve lied because you know I’ve always promised to be honest with you.” That statement broke her, so to speak, because she knew it was true. At that point, we could begin – in honesty – to deal with the actual problem at hand.

Honesty is hard. But it builds trust for your kids’ ultimate benefit. Are you willing to commit to giving an honest answer to any direct question from your children?

Photo Credit: Picturepest

July 10, 2018

Legitimate Pride

Human nature is a funny thing.

I haven’t looked into the research studies I’m sure exist, but we can all agree anecdotally, based on what we’ve seen all around us and inside ourselves as well, that it’s generally far easier to see the negative about ourselves than the positive. Maybe we all carry a sort of “historical memory” – something within, reminding us we’re descended from Adam and Eve and are, thus, prone to mess things up. Or maybe it’s the result of the sorting and stacking sadly inherent in our culture, where a person learns to rate himself horizontally – comparing himself to others – instead of thinking vertically and tracking his own unique, individual growth over time. I think, too, that as Christ-followers we aim (appropriately) to guard against sinful pride. But we can go too far and end up believing – and teaching our kids – that any pride is bad.

Of course, we all know parents who act as if their kids can do no wrong, a practice fraught with its own serious perils. But, generally speaking, the fact remains that most of us probably need to be more intentional about letting our kids know we believe in them and are proud of them.

One way to work on that is to decide to stop seeing our kids as the culture does. Specifically, we must choose to avoid comparing one child to another – whether at home or in school or community groups – and, instead, embrace each one’s unique, God-ordained personality, strengths and weaknesses, interests and talents. When we compare children against each other, the focus is on “better” or “worse,” and it often becomes impossible for a child – or her parent – to see her for who she really is. But when we choose a different focus – evaluating how a child is doing today in math or truth-telling or archery skills in relation to how she was doing last week, month, or year – growth and improvement becomes far clearer. And then we can more easily encourage the child.

Another way to be intentional is to be specific. Kids have a hard time embracing generalized statements – “I believe in you!” or “I’m proud of you!” In fact, when I’ve said that to my kids on the fly, they dismiss it with, “You have to say that; you’re our mom.” But when we choose specificity – “That was a tough situation. I’m really proud of you for speaking up firmly but kindly just now,” or “I’ve heard you at every lesson and as you practice every day, so I believe you can nail the solo at tomorrow’s recital.” – we let our kids know we’re paying close attention to their efforts, which enables them to more readily internalize what we say.

Because we do seem so prone to accept the negative about ourselves, criticism sticks much more readily than praise; when I scold or even appropriately critique one of my kids, I can see in her eyes that it cuts her to the quick. Conversely, it seems I must offer a dozen legitimate, specific praises before a child “owns” a compliment. We obviously need to correct our kids as necessary, but they desperately need us as their parents to point them to their strengths via specific, intentional praise. Building that sort of pride is healthy and good, ultimately leading a child to proclaim, “Look at the blessings God has built into me! I’m going to do my best to use them for Him.” They need our legitimate affirmation to get there.


June 26, 2018

Choosing Intentionality

One of my deepest hurts in life was not knowing if my mother liked me, let alone loved me. I eventually came to understand at least some of the reasons for her apparent indifference towards me – it sprouted from a complicated tangle of dysfunction in both her family of origin and her relationship with my father – and getting a grip on that erased my anger toward her and eased some of my heartache. But the void left by her lack of affection caused emotional damage and left inevitable scars.

When I chose as a young adult to follow Christ, I honed in on what has become one of my favorite verses:

“…We know that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8.28)

This verse taught me that, while God hates situations that cause harm to children (Luke 17.2), He uses the unavoidable sin inherent in this fallen world for ultimate good. And one good fruit He brought to bear from my childhood pain was a core belief that my kids deserve to know – without a shadow of a doubt – that I both love and like them.

Of course, I’ve not been a perfect parent; I’ve had my share of angry moments, illogical outbursts, and conclusion-jumping. And sometimes I simply don’t like a child’s behavior or choices. That’s to be expected; in fact, we’re called to guide our kids away from bad and sinful decisions and actions. But it’s imperative that we do whatever it takes to differentiate between a child’s behavior and his identity so that he can honestly know we love him even as we appropriately dislike – and perhaps mete out discipline in response to – a particular choice he’s made.

One way we can do that is to choose intentionality. So, for example, when I’ve had to punish one of my kids, I make no assumptions about what she understands and believes about the situation. Instead, I set aside time to thoroughly talk things through with her – via a conversation, not a lecture. I aim to help her understand which behavior was problematic and why, and we discuss and choose together an appropriate consequence. And I never assume she knows I love her anyway; I tell her so directly, backing up my words with hugs and prayer over her in the moment.

Intentionality takes time and effort. Recently it took three hours to work through a seriously dangerous decision one of my kids had made, completely upending our initial plans for the day. But that’s how long we needed to make initial repairs to the damage and for me to assure her that she can rest securely in my love for her no matter what.

How are you doing when it comes to choosing intentionality with your kids?

June 12, 2018

A Game-Changer

After my fourth year of teaching English to middle school-aged kids, I transferred to the neighboring high school. On my first day, I discovered that several students who'd been in my classes as eighth graders were on my rosters at the high school. One such student was Roberto.

Though he didn’t love school, Roberto was bright and energetic. His English skills were strong, and in middle school he regularly participated in group discussions and readily smiled and joked appropriately with his classmates and me. I looked forward to seeing him again.

But Roberto was different in the fall. He seemed naturally petrified on the first day – as did all the freshmen. Unlike his same-aged peers, though, he didn’t settle in. Within a couple of weeks – in complete contrast to the good rapport we’d previously enjoyed – he refused to do any of the work I assigned and devolved into disrupting my class with surliness or inappropriate commentary every day. Confused and a little hurt, I reluctantly sent him to the principal’s office a couple of times, but that didn’t seem like a real solution – and the more he was sent out, the further behind he fell. I finally chose a different course of action and set one desk at the back of the room, away from all the others. Privately, I told Roberto the desk was his – that he couldn’t join the rest of the class until he agreed to participate appropriately but that I wouldn’t send him out again if he didn’t cause disruption.

Every day for three straight weeks, he went right to his new desk without complaint, and promptly put his head down. When the bell rang, he left without a word. Though it was an improvement – and I knew he was listening to our class discussions even as he feigned sleep – I was still worried. I finally asked him to come after school to talk.

To my surprise, he showed up. But he stomped in, scraped chair legs across the floor as he sat down among the regular desks, and looked as if he wanted to punch something. As I finished a conversation with another student, anger rose within me. Who did this kid think he was? He’d been “my bud” before; I didn’t deserve this behavior from him. It was about time he knew it!

And then… I “heard” what I know to be the Holy Spirit’s still small voice in my soul, prompting me down a different path. The other student left, and I let out a deep sigh, then gently pulled out the chair next to Roberto. I put a hand on his shoulder and said as calmly as I could muster, “Roberto, what’s wrong? How can I help?”

And then – to my utter astonishment – his shoulders shuddered and he began sobbing. Not knowing what else to do, I simply kept my hand on his back and just let him cry.

After 10 minutes, he calmed down enough to talk. Turns out, he was completely overwhelmed by absolutely every aspect of high school, and the pressure he felt built up more and more every day. His disruptions were a cover for deep anxiety.

I reassured him that I – for one – was on his side and would help however I could. At the end of the conversation, he finally flashed a big grin, and I almost cried, realizing how much I’d missed that smile. When he walked into class the next day, he went right past his “detention seat” to his previous spot among his classmates and never disrupted again.

Sometimes kids do need discipline, consequences, and punishment. But sometimes they actually need us - our presence and an authentic listening ear. I couldn’t change Roberto’s overall circumstances. But because I listened, he knew he wasn’t alone. And just that simple act was a game-changer.


May 29, 2018

Clarity Communicates Love

I recently found a service for digitizing old photos and just received the files containing the first batch of images I’d submitted for conversion. These pictures – and the others I’ll eventually convert – mainly feature my daughters as babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, in the years before my husband or I owned a digital camera. I hadn’t seen many of the images in years so I naturally spent time browsing through them and reminiscing.

I found myself reliving specific incidents we’d captured on film, which then led – via the rabbit trails on which our minds so often take us – to remembrances of other events and activities. And before long, I was mentally transported back 10 or 15 years to the season of life when I was in the very busy throes of parenting our active “Irish twin” girls as well as caring for several other children via the in-home childcare business I owned.

At the time – and still now if the topic comes up – people asked how I wrangled so many children all the time. Of course, my life wasn’t really that unusual, as plenty of moms have a handful of their own children and in-home childcare businesses are common. And I definitely had my fair share of hard days. But when things were going well, I truly believe it boiled down – on a human level – to communication. Clear and positive communication.

For example, I remember consciously choosing to avoid asking questions of the children when I intended to give direct instruction. Thus, I didn’t say, “Would you like to come to lunch now?” when coming really wasn’t optional. Instead, I calmly but firmly said, “I need you to come to lunch now, kids.” Likewise, I determined not to say things like, “You want to come here for story time, right?” That sentence combines a command with an odd question and confuses children (i.e., making them wonder if I was telling or asking) and opens the door for unnecessary conflict. So I’d say something like, “It’s story time, kids. I need you to come over and cuddle up now.” Just that simple shift in word and “tone” – from asking to calmly telling – made a world of difference because the kids were able to clearly discern my expectations.

I believe many parents struggle with the notion of telling versus asking. Because we love our kids, we want to help them feel completely accepted by us, which is, of course, a wholly laudable goal! And giving kids realistic choice whenever reasonably possible – i.e., “Would you like to wear the red dress or the blue, Sally?” – is a very good thing. But we must remember that our children are immature by virtue of their youth and, thus, need (and subconsciously crave) clear direction. Commands delivered in love – firmly but positively – are not bad. In fact, just like the fences we have around our yards, purposing to communicate without ambiguity in the early years keeps kids physically safe and emotionally secure, and lays the foundation for a beautiful lifelong parent-child relationship.


May 16, 2018

What Are Your Ambitions, Dear?

Because of my teen daughters’ social circles, I know more kids every year – my girls’ friends, others in our local homeschool association, relatives, kids at church – who are graduating high school. And, just as when I was a classroom teacher at the high school level, I enjoy talking with these young people about their hopes and dreams.

I’ve learned not to ask a very common but extremely presumptuous question – “Where are you going to college?” – because I’ve been witnessing how many of today’s youth, after having given very careful consideration to all the options set before them, have wisely decided upon totally viable, alternative paths. So, I used to default to another, broader and more inclusive question: “What are you doing after graduation?”

But I recently heard an even better query – a simple but profound semantic twist that shows how much words matter in setting a tone. In the exchange I observed, a wise older woman asked a teen girl, "So, what are your ambitions, dear?"

This wording was incredible! First, it was optimistic, communicating the woman’s belief that the teen did, indeed, have life goals. Second, it was open-ended, creating an opportunity for the teen to expound upon her real hopes and dreams instead of feeling boxed in by preconceived expectations. Third, it opened the door to real relationship – an authentic conversation where the teen could feel safe being transparent, knowing the adult was genuinely interested and not just making “small talk.”

I don’t put teenagers on a pedestal; I know they have very real struggles, individually and as a social cohort. But I discovered long ago – even before I had my own children – that kids almost always respond well to positive feedback. In other words, if they sense that we believe in them, they’ll usually attempt to rise to the occasion. And when they try, they almost always make it.

They also need to know that we see and accept each one’s individuality. That we don’t view them as cookie-cutter products on an assembly line, all required to do the same things in the same way. That we celebrate the diversity of paths to happy, functional adulthood this generation is discovering.

Some of the teens I know aren’t quite sure of their post-high school ambitions. But those who have ideas are gloriously all over the map – as wannabe missionaries, graphic artists, nurses, interior designers, professional nannies, homeschool moms, music producers, small business owners, and computer programmers, just to name a few. And they’ve thought through the ways – some conventional and some very “out of the box” – in which they can reach their goals. I believe we need to encourage them to pursue those ambitions, providing enough guidance and support on the one hand while letting them freely explore their options on the other.

What are the ambitions of the kids in your life?

Photo Credit: theilr

May 1, 2018

Graduated Technology “Licensing”

Both of my daughters recently completed 30 hours of online driver education instruction and then passed permit tests at the local DMV. Thus, according to the rules in my state, each is now legally allowed to get behind the wheel of a vehicle to begin learning how to drive. But in order to receive an actual license, each must now spend no less than six months practicing, and during that time she must log at least 30 hours of driving with a parent, spend at least six hours of both observation and actual behind-the-wheel time with a certified driving instructor, take another written exam, and pass a driving skills test at the DMV. And even after all of that, each will be issued a mere probationary license for at least nine more months before finally becoming eligible for a regular license.

All the steps and rules might seem overbearing, and we might think our kids can learn to drive safely without such micromanaging. In fact, though I believe these driving rules have been developed with the best of intentions and with kids’ safety in mind, I’m generally a fan of “less is more” when it comes to governmental regulation. Yet these rules don’t violate scriptural principles, so I’m bound to obey them (Romans 13.1), like it or not.

I’m old enough to remember life without the internet and all the technology that’s come along with it. I also remember that the internet was commonly referred to as the “information superhighway” when it took off in the 1990s. And I think the term provides a very useful analogy when it comes to our kids’ cyber-safety.

Being able to drive – at any age – brings with it an enormous sense of freedom. It exponentially expands the locations a person can reasonably explore and opens many doors of opportunity. However, it’s also a serious responsibility fraught with peril of many kinds. And the same can be said for “driving” on the information superhighway. The advent of internet technology has opened up innumerable opportunities for all of us, but – from cyberbullying to online child predators to phishing scams, identity theft, and internet addiction – it’s also greatly increased the potential harms our kids face, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

As I watched each of my daughters get behind the wheel to take her first drive under my husband’s guidance, I was thankful for the graduated licensing procedure my state requires. I want my girls to gain the freedom and independence a license affords, but, of course, I want just as much for them to be safe. I don’t think we need a government policy on technology use for children – but I do think it’s imperative that each parent purpose to create and enforce a policy of “graduated licensing” for his or her kids’ use of technology. In fact, if we fail to set guidelines and rules – even when our kids don’t like them – we endanger them just as much as if we were to give our car keys to a three-year old.

Your graduated licensing policy will be different than mine; in fact, the rules may vary even among children in the same family, depending on each one’s demonstrated readiness for levels of freedom and independence. The important thing is to design and uphold some sort of graduated “licensing” policy to keep your kids safe on the information superhighway.


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