In the early years of my parenting journey I was a lousy mother. I wasn’t quite sure how to relate to these barely sentient creatures and I was not naturally blessed with an abundance of patience. The kids would tweak every nerve I possessed until hitting the final one, at which time I would blow. Having allowed my annoyance to creep to higher and higher levels, the pressure of my suppressed anger would eventually take on a life of its own. Like a natural disaster, my mouth would open and all of my fury and frustration would spew forth in a hot torrent of words. Screeching and yelling in a most unbecoming fashion, I would erupt all over my children.
I don’t know where this behavior came from. I was not raised in a home of anger or shouting. In fact, my own mother never yelled. Instead, she had perfected the art of the ‘stink eye’. All it took was one look from the ‘eye’ and we knew we’d best behave. The funny thing about it though, is that when we were out of the range of her ‘eye’, anything went. If you’ve ever read The Lord of the Flies, you’ll have a pretty good picture of how wild we were as kids. Though only when the grown ups weren’t looking.
I knew that I didn’t want my kids to do right only when I was watching. And I certainly did not wish to continue the cycle of emotional volcanic activity that was my own parenting style. There did come a pivotal point in my motherhood story, but that is for another day. Suffice it to say, our Lord is gracious and meets us where we are. He comes through even when we are coated in mud and gives us exactly what we need to walk a better way. Here are a few of the gems I’ve picked up.
Train your children in times of non-crisis.
Many of us wait to instruct our children until they have exhibited some form of poor behavior. It is when they ‘get in trouble’ that we impart our expectations. This is exactly backwards. The bulk of our instruction should be at times of peace. In the daily living and normal conversations.
“Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deut. 11:19, NIV)
We mustn’t be so focused on suppressing bad behavior that we neglect teaching good behavior. If we do, we risk having children who know how to act, but have no moral understanding of why. When new situations come along, they will lack the skills to make morally right decisions.
Some of our most teachable moments have come from movies, books, or T.V. shows. We discuss characters that stand out for their right conduct. We identify those whose conduct is less than stellar and discuss what we would want to teach them. Even the lovably roguish superheroes get a moral critique.
We also observe other families and how they interact. Strangers, friends, store employees, and church members are all considered. (Remember to always speak lovingly of others, even when their behavior is undesirable. Gossip is never edifying!) Discussion of anything and everything in a natural way has shown me the inner workings of my children far more than stern disciplinary lecturing could ever do.
My one caveat here is that before children reach about the age of three, they will not be able to grasp abstract concepts such as kindness, self-control, or patience. Very small children do not have the cognitive ability to put the good of others before their own desires and impulses. The bulk of your instruction then will be by example, giving positive feedback for good behavior, and during times of correction.
Make your expectations clear.
The best way I have found to make sure that my kids know exactly what I expect of them is to role play. Just recently we did this with our nine year old daughter. Being rather reserved, she wasn’t sure how to respond when a stranger would speak to her. We played ‘restaurant’ and taught her to look the waitress in the eye, speak clearly, and smile. I pretended to be a random old lady complementing her on her hat. She learned to make eye contact, smile, and say thank you. When we encountered these situations again, she felt confident and did a marvelous job.
Role playing can be a hilarious way to teach proper behavior. Try teaching good table manners by acting like an ill-mannered guest. I guarantee your children will love to correct your social mistakes! Have fun and impart your expectations with gentleness, clarity, and humor.
When correction is needed, do it before you get angry.
If you have trained your children diligently and made your expectations clear, then the correction part is much easier. Make sure that the consequences are clearly laid out. Administer correction immediately following an infraction, rather than waiting until the bad conduct escalates and your annoyance along with it. It is incredibly freeing and much more effective this way.
Always follow correction with snuggles and words of love. The point of correction is to train, not to punish. It is nigh impossible to keep this in mind when you discipline in anger.
Know where you are trying to go.
In my last post, I discussed the importance of getting a firm handle on what your family’s moral standard is. (If you missed it, you can read it here.) You can only lead your children to the places you’ve walked first. Simply pointing them in the right direction and saying, ‘do as I say, not as I do’, is to completely disregard our responsibilities as a parent.
“Whether by intent or neglect, parents are the greatest moral influence on their children. Not only do parents teach principles of moral conduct, they validate them in the context of daily living.” (Growing Kids God’s Way)
I’ve learned much since those early days. I’ve grown and stretched and changed in ways I never dreamed. I don’t erupt like an angry volcano anymore. However, while I don’t have to use it often, I did master the ‘ol stink eye’. Thanks, Mom; it does come in handy on occasion! 😉