If your trusted auto mechanic tells you that your car has a serious problem, will you blow it off? If your doctor calls and says that your test results are back and he needs to talk with you right away, will you ignore the call? If the Spirit tells you that a course of action is dangerous, will you disregard the impression?
Those are important signals. We ignore them at our peril.
There are signals in parenting that are just as important. A child is sullen. Another is reactive and defensive. A once cheerful and affectionate child seems distant.
It is easy to dismiss such signals. “They’ll get over it.” “It’s their problem.” “It’s just a stage.” Even worse than dismissing such signals, we may not even really notice. We are too busy or distracted.
Some signals from children are even stronger than those named above. Our children may squabble and bicker. They may be angry and stubborn. They may be silent and distant.
Sometimes we react to such behavior with disapproval. “You’ve gotten sullen.” “What’s wrong with you?” “I wish you would stop being so self-centered!”
Sometimes we see signals from our kids that worry us, and we have no idea how to react to them. We fret and wonder.
The big challenge of signals from our children is that they are coded. A simple invitation from a child to take a walk could signal loneliness, confusion, or boredom—or some hidden agenda. Acting out by a child could signal despair, anger, or deep pain.
We will never know what those signals indicate unless we are not only attentive in the moment but alert to the children’s unique personalities and experiences—their natures and histories. Even then we may discover only hints. Only God knows the full story.
We may try to discover the meaning of children’s behavior by interrogating them. But the young person standing in the intersection of confusing experience and mystifying feelings may least be able to make sense of things.
And we are just as confused. We filter our children’s experiences through our life stories and our current needs. We are irritated by their sullenness and angry with their surliness. Often, we are quite sure we understand what is happening in our children’s lives and we’re glad to tell them so. And we’re usually wrong.
Is there any hope?
Let’s consider the challenges of helping teens. It is common for them to become withdrawn and reactive as they deal with a confusing world and perplexing feelings. They shrug. They bristle. They feel a lot but keep much of it inside.
The natural parental reaction is to get angry and defensive. We lecture and punish. The teen withdraws and broods more. And the cycle continues for years or decades.
My dear wife Nancy is different from most adults. She recognizes brooding as a sign of confusion and loneliness. Instead of turning against such a child, she turns toward. She embraces them. She might offer to give the teen a ride to an event or join them in a cooking project or help them with a school assignment.
As she joins the churlish teen, she does not probe or push. She cheerfully helps. And along the way she asks about their lives. She listens and understands. She enjoys them. Nancy heals with her warm and loving presence.
Imagine that young children and teens had that kind of experience often. Imagine that they regularly felt safe and heard. Maybe that helps the children make sense of their feelings. But there is more. In a nurturing environment, there is less to figure out. Children feel more peaceful and purposeful. Many burdens of life evaporate.
We all need to feel safe and loved. And feeling safe and loved is pretty uncommon in a fallen world. There just aren’t enough Nancys to go around.
But if we all slowed down a little and imposed our meanings less often, maybe we could help each other in the journey. The single most important thing parents can do for children after effectively loving them is listening to them, being open to their experience, seeking to understand them.
I suppose the person who taught me this lesson most directly was Haim Ginott. His classic book, Between Parent and Child, gives numerous examples of parents imposing their agenda on their children’s experiences. He also provides inspiring examples of parents opening their hearts to their children’s challenges. Reading and re-reading his stories is helping me become a better parent.
One of my favorite examples from Ginott is a story about Carol and Susie. I quote from Between Parent and Child:
Carol, age twelve, was tense and tearful. Her favorite cousin was going home after staying with her during the summer.
CAROL (With tears in her eyes): Susie is going away. I’ll be all alone again.
MOTHER: You’ll find another friend.
CAROL: I’ll be so lonely.
MOTHER: You’ll get over it.
CAROL: Oh, mother! (Sobs.)
MOTHER: You are twelve years old and still such a crybaby.
Carol gave mother a deadly look and escaped to her room, closing the door behind her.
This episode should have had a happier ending. A child’s feeling must be taken seriously, even though the situation itself is not very serious. In mother’s eyes a summer separation may be too minor a crisis for tears, but her response need not have lacked sympathy. Mother might have said to herself, “Carol is distressed. I can help her best by showing that I understand what pains her.” To her daughter she might have said any or all of the following:
“It will be lonely without Susie.”
“You miss her already.”
“It is hard to be apart when you are so used to being together.”
“The house must seem kind of empty to you without Susie around.”
Such responses create intimacy between parent and child. When the child feels understood, her loneliness and hurt diminish, because they are understood, and her love for mother is deepened because she understands. Mother’s sympathy serves as an emotional Band-Aid for the bruised ego.
The mother in Ginott’s story could have stopped and entered her daughter’s experience. Rather than advise, she could have listened. She could have tried to capture what it might feel like to be Carol.
This is very different from our usual parenting. When children are upset, we parents often feel irritated and inconvenienced. Our irritation will not help a child in pain. Compassion will.
Compassion is godly. Jesus not only paid for our sins; He entered our pains and infirmities so that He would fully understand every struggle we ever experience. He paid an enormous price to fully inform His compassion.
How can we be less like fallen and impatient parents and more like Jesus? We can slow down. We can make time to be with and listen to our children. We can set aside our worries to look into the hearts of our children. We can try to express what they might be feeling—like Ginott suggested. One way of doing this is called emotion coaching. (For more on this subject, see Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman.)
None of us will show compassion reliably and perfectly. But we can grow in this godly quality. It makes all the difference.
How can we learn to stop being reactive parents? I encourage every parent to read Haim Ginott’s classic book (which I helped revise for the current edition). As the famous psychologist John Gottman said of the book “This is the most important book ever written on parenting and the emotional world of children. It is a must that every parent and teacher master the skills taught in these pages. Written by Dr. Haim Ginott, renowned child psychologist—and in my opinion, a true genius—Between Parent and Child goes far beyond telling us how to discipline and control our kids and explains how to raise children who are not only well behaved, but are also emotionally strong, independent thinkers, and compassionate toward others. This newly revised edition is better than ever. Take my advice—buy this book! Read this book! You and your children will be forever grateful.”
Understanding and living compassion may be the most important thing we can do to build strong and caring children.
Invitation: If you are interested in strengthening your marriage with gospel insight, research discoveries, and practical insight, please join us for a daylong marriage retreat, Create a Happier Marriage Using Powerful Principles, in Alpine on October 21. The cost for the daylong experience is $200 per couple. To sign up, CLICK HERE.