“You get right back in there and wash your hands!” The man said sternly. “And don’t touch anything!” The young boy raised his hands and trotted back to the restroom to obey. We were enjoying breakfast out after early church services, and found ourselves unwitting eavesdroppers on the man and his two small sons in the neighboring booth. “Do NOT eat the butter like that!” hissed the father. “You will not do that. Ever. Again!” “Okay, Daddy,” responded the sweet little voice agreeably.
The man was without an accompanying female partner, and was clearly weary. He was also obviously concerned that his boys would be a distraction to other diners. His admonishments were firm and not entirely unwarranted. After all, as parents we do need to instruct our young children on proper social etiquette. We have all experienced the disruption of dining while someone’s uncivilized darling destroys our peaceful environment. Quite frankly, it sucks. So on one hand, this father, attempting to instill good manners in his sons is to be commended.
I had noticed this man only a short time before in the Sunday School pick up line at church. He was, on his own, taking his children to church and out for a meal after, so this was no apathetic parent. His voice was firm, with more than a hint of frustration, but not mean. I had the impression of a good man who was trying his best to be a responsible father. So what was it that troubled me so?
There was no conversation between this daddy and his boys. Rather, there was only a constant stream of commands and rebuke. It was no wonder this man sounded, and looked, plumb tuckered. And as the meal wore on, his sweet-faced young sons began to look worn as well.
I might have simply dismissed the incident, except that I have been hearing similar exchanges a lot lately. In my social circles. At the grocery store. To be brutally honest, some of it has been in my own home. From my own lips. And I know better; what I am about to challenge you on is something I learned many years ago. Apparently, the Lord knew I needed a refresher course.
I have three questions I’d like us to consider:
1.) If you were to tape record your interactions with your children for one day, what would you hear? Would you smile fondly at the loving words and chuckle at the funny things said? Or would you cringe in embarrassment at your shrillness, and feel shamed by your frustrated outbursts? I have to admit that the first time someone posed this question to me the answer was unequivocally the latter. It was a rather shocking realization that, fortunately, led to real changes in my parenting. This is one self-evaluation exercise that is incredibly humbling.
2.) Are you instructing at the expense of relationship? Do you have actual conversations with your children? Step back and objectively assess your words. What is the ratio of negative words to positive words? All too often in our zeal to do this parenting thing right, we miss out on the joy of getting to know these amazing little people we’ve been blessed with. The poor young man in the restaurant did not once ask his boys what they’d learned in Sunday School, or what they thought of the food they were eating. He was so focused on one part of the parenting equation (training) that he was missing the best parts.
3.) Do your kids know that you love them? Of course I know, and you know that you love your children. Every act of service you do for them says so, right? Perhaps. But since children do not have the life experience to understand such subtleties, they may know it less than you think.
Everything you say, including words, tone, and body language, sends a message to your kids. Is that message, “Wow! I am just crazy about you! You’re awesome, and I’m glad you’re mine!” Or is the message more like one of these: “I’m rather busy right now, what do you want? Really, are you dense? You are so naughty!”
Of course we all have our moments of frustration and impatience that leak out onto our kids, but overall, which type of message do you usually convey?
What do I do when I find my answers to these three questions to be less than satisfactory? I take each child aside separately. I look into their eyes, really look, and smile wide. I touch their shoulders or cup their face in my palms and ask them, “Do you know how crazy I am about you?” I fill them with words of affirmation like, “I think you are amazing!” or “You’re so much fun to hang out with!” All the while I maintain eye contact, letting them know that, at that moment, there is nothing on earth more important than them.
It felt a little weird the first time I did this. I am not naturally a very demonstrative person. But I have found that our children need this affirmation. In fact, they need it like a flower needs sunshine. It is food for their young souls. I have never seen a child (my own, or others in my sphere) turn from this in indifference. Even the most stoic of my kids drink this message in thirstily.
We all want to be significant. We yearn for acceptance. Deep in our souls is a groaning to be loved with utter abandon; to be captivating and beautiful. This significance, acceptance, and all-consuming love can only be found in our Creator, but we parents are the gateway for our children. Until they can understand who He is, we are the best reflection they have. Are we reflecting Him well?
Father, help me to remember that I am a reflection of you to my kids. Help me to not get so caught up in daily doings that I forget to be still and soak in the beauty of these people you have charged me with raising. Let them know how much my heart delights in them. May they see how utterly captivated I am. And by this, may they easily transition into an acceptance of how loved they are by you. Amen.