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Raising Flexible Thinkers

April 05, 2018
By Todd Cartmell

By Todd Cartmell, Used by Permission Focus on the Family.  


"Steven gets upset whenever something is difficult."

"Zoe threw a fit at her brother's birthday party because she couldn't go on the trampoline with the older kids."

"Jose argues about everything. It's a major battle when I ask him to turn off a video game."

As a parent, you may recognize these situations. They're common experiences among families, and they're part of my daily work as a child psychologist. And even though these kids can throw mountain-sized tantrums at the drop of a hat, I believe there is much for their parents to be hopeful about. They can significantly improve their kids' behavior when they recognize two truths:

Kids need to learn a certain important skill, and if they learn this skill, it will help them respond in a much better way to the ups and downs of life.

Moms and dads can help their kids learn this skill.

The skill I am referring to is called flexible thinking — the ability to view life from another point of view. This skill allows children to cognitively flex when life's circumstances don't go the way they had hoped.

Roots of behavior

Most parents respond to disrespectful behavior with discipline. We put kids in a timeout or give some logical consequence. On a good day, we may take the time to help kids understand how their behavior made others feel, encouraging them to make better choices next time.

Discipline is good and necessary, but it's often not enough. When kids are confronted with the brutal reality that they cannot have a brownie right now or they have to turn off the video game and do homework, their negative thinking habit kicks in. This thinking drives their emotional and behavioral response. Negative, inflexible thinking leads to unhealthy emotions and poor behavior. But the reverse is also true: Positive, flexible thinking leads to healthy emotions and a better behavioral response.

"Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). This proverb has always been helpful to me in my parenting. Kids need more than discipline; they need training. They need parents who will teach them how to do the right thing so they don't have to experience what happens when they do the wrong thing — or at least not as often. Discipline tells your kids what to stop doing. Flexible thinking is what we want them to start doing.

Introducing flexible thinking

Step one is helping our kids understand that there are two possible types of thoughts when things don't go their way: flexible thoughts, which help them stay calm and make a good choice; and angry, inflexible thoughts, which often lead to bad choices and unpleasant consequences.

There are many situations every day that don't go the way kids want: losing a game, having to get ready for bed, not being allowed a snack before dinner. Choose a few situations, and have your kids think of angry or negative thoughts that might pop into their minds:

I always lose!

I don't want to stop playing!

It's not fair!

Explain to your kids that when they let angry thoughts into their minds, they end up feeling angry and acting angry. Anger makes it easier to act in disrespectful ways, which is not how God wants us to treat each other.

Now brainstorm flexible thoughts for these same situations:

You win some; you lose some.

There will be time to play tomorrow.

I'll have a snack later.

Ask your kids how they would feel and behave if their first response was one of these flexible thoughts instead of an angry thought. They might feel a little disappointed or frustrated, or they might feel just fine. That is the power of flexible thinking: It affects the corresponding emotions immediately, making it much easier to make good choices and treat others with respect.

Encouraging flexible thinking

Like with any skill, time and practice are needed to replace negative thinking habits with flexible responses. Continue to brainstorm scenarios that allow your kids to practice this skill. Scenarios can include home, school and relationships, or any situation that doesn't go the way kids were expecting. Add age-appropriate scenarios as your kids get older and experience new challenges.

Parents can also create an environment that intentionally encourages flexible thinking and provides quick and effective consequences for disrespectful behavior. Be on the lookout for any signs that your child has chosen flexible thoughts over mad thoughts. When you see your kids respond respectfully in a situation that didn't go their way, let them know you noticed their positive choice by giving them a compliment, a high-five or a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. By pointing out their positive words and actions on a daily basis, you help them see that flexible thinking pays off.

When kids behave disrespectfully, you need to respond calmly and encourage them to make a good choice or use respectful words. Offer to help them think of a flexible thought if they can't seem to do so on their own. If they choose poorly, implement an appropriate consequence in a calm and respectful way. Of course, any situation that your kids handle poorly can be used later as a practice scenario to help them think of flexible thoughts more quickly next time.

Flexible thinking is a skill that all kids need to learn. The good news is that they can learn it. But parents need to introduce this valuable skill, practice it with their children over time and create an environment that encourages flexible thinking and discourages angry thoughts and the disrespectful behavior that those thoughts bring.

I know hundreds of kids who have learned to be flexible. Your kids can think this way, too.

Dr. Todd Cartmell is a child psychologist and author who lives in Wheaton, Illinois. His most recent book is 8 Simple Tools for Raising Great Kids.

Does God Teach Flexible Thinking?

While you don't see the term "flexible thinking" in the Bible, the idea of flexibility is easy to see in the pages of Scripture. When the apostle Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, those traits include patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control — traits that work together for a calm, positive and flexible response to life's challenges. Likewise, in Ephesians 4:31-32, Paul exhorts us to get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger — and instead, treat each other with kindness and compassion. And in Philippians 2:3-4, we're encouraged to humbly consider others as better than ourselves, to look out not only for our own interests, but also for the interests of others.

These choices — to act in a way that is gentle, kind, self-controlled, compassionate and considerate of others — require the ability to put things into perspective, look at situations from another point of view, and consider and evaluate various options. In addition to the willing submission of one's life and will to God, they require the skill of cognitive flexibility, a trait that God wants to grow in each one of us.

—T.C.

Flexible Brains

There is a battle taking place in your child's brain between negative thoughts and flexible thoughts. To win this battle, I recommend that kids memorize a few flexible thoughts to be prepared for challenging situations. You can add to and customize this list for various situations.

I should just do it. This flexible thought is designed for what your child should think when given a basic parental directive.

Scenario: You ask your child to turn off the TV and come to the dinner table.

It's no big deal. This one applies to many situations. Most things that don't go the way we want are not a big deal, and this flexible thought reminds your kids of that important truth.

Scenario: You tell your child there is not enough time to watch a movie tonight.

It won't take long. Many of the tasks, chores and requests that come your child's way really don't take that long to do — sometimes just a few seconds or minutes.

Scenario: You ask your child to empty the dishwasher.

The sooner I start, the sooner I'm done. This one is especially helpful for older kids as they experience more situations where a task or chore may take a longer time.

Scenario: Your child needs to mow the lawn, study for a test, do a lot of homework or clean a particularly messy room.

That's OK. I can do it later. This flexible thought applies to situations where a child wants to do something fun but is not able to do it right now. Your kids will use this one a lot.

Scenario: Your child wants to go to Bobby's house to play Xbox, but you say there is not enough time today. Take time to help your child practice putting his list of flexible thoughts to use. Think of realistic life scenarios where something doesn't go the way your child was hoping or expecting. Then see if your child can respond with a flexible thought that will help him make a good choice in that situation.

—T.C.

Flex or Break!

To illustrate the concept of flexible thinking for younger kids, you will need a rubber band and a pencil. Find a quiet place to sit down with your child, free from distractions.

PARENT: (pick up a rubber band and stretch it) What is this?

CHILD: A rubber band.

PARENT: Right. (Continue to stretch and twist the rubber band). And a rubber band is very ... ?

CHILD: Stretchy?

PARENT: That's right. There's another word that means the same thing as stretchy: flexible. A rubber band is very flexible. It can be small or stretch over something big. But how about this pencil? Is it very flexible?" (Start to gently bend the pencil, showing how it is not very flexible).

CHILD: Nope.

PARENT: Right. What will happen if I flex it too much?

CHILD: It will break.

PARENT: Let's see. (Continue to bend the pencil until it breaks.) This shows what happens when we get mad and are not flexible. We break — we talk rudely, argue or throw a fit. So the rubber band stands for being flexible, and the broken pencil stands for getting mad. Which one do you want to be like?

CHILD: The rubber band.

PARENT: So, when something doesn't go the way we want, we can think flexible thoughts in our brain or we can think angry thoughts. Flexible thoughts will help you make a good choice. Angry thoughts trick you into making a bad choice. Remember: Flexible thinking helps us make good choices!

—T.C.

This article first appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

© 2017 by Todd Cartmell. Used by permission of Focus on the Family.

Wanted: Good Friends

March 22, 2018
By Shaunti Feldhahn
Note:  Students photographed are not associated with the Focus on the Family article.
[Copyright © 2013 by Shaunti Feldhahn. Used by permission. Focus on the Family] 

Alice's heart dropped as her daughter ran into the house, dumped her backpack on her bedroom floor and started sobbing on her bed. Sixth-graders could be so cruel.

Alice walked into the bedroom, and her daughter said, between sobs, "Don't make me go back to school. Everyone hates me!"

Alice gave her girl a tight hug. "They don't hate you, sweetheart."

"But I don't have any friends," the girl wailed.

"Sure you do. Debbie was just over here the other day."

The young girl sniffed. "Yes, Debbie." She looked hopelessly at her mother and asked, "Who else?"

Alice felt uncomfortable. "Well . . . how about Angie?"

"Angie hasn't talked to me in months, Mom. Neither has Patty or Lara." She started crying again. "All the kids from youth group make excuses to avoid inviting me to things. I don't have any friends!"

Alice hugged her again, wondering what she could possibly say. Her daughter was right — she was the kid nobody liked. How could she help her daughter find friends? She was a sweet child but didn't understand that she was turning people off by talking too much, being oversensitive and not knowing how to approach others in an appropriate way.

Alice understood that the only way to help her daughter find a friend was to teach her how to be a friend. So the effort began.

That little girl eventually learned how to be a good friend and grew up to be someone who has many great friends.

How do I know? I was that young girl.

Over time, I learned some life-changing principles that continue to help me build friendships today. Here are three basic habits you can teach your children to help them thrive during the critical years of learning about friendship.

Friendship habit No. 1: Ask others about themselves

One of the most eye-opening facts I learned about friendship was this: To be a good friend, you don't tell people about yourself. You ask them about themselves. Until then, my conversations had been of the "Me, too!" variety as I desperately tried to fit in. But I learned that when you ask, "What does your family do for summer vacation?" and urge another kid to talk about herself, she just might think you're pretty cool.

Children are often seen as easier to be around when they stop talking about themselves (unless asked) and try to learn things about other people.

Gradually coach your kids to learn at least one or two things a week that they didn't know about a friend — or someone they want as a friend. Teach them to ask questions like: "What was your favorite vacation?" "What are your favorite video games?" (My son's favorite "friend topic" has to do with what level of a certain video game each boy is on. I must confess I don't understand a word of it, but it sure gets them energized!

Friendship habit No. 2: Make others comfortable

Another prerequisite for being a good friend is observing how others feel and setting them at ease. 
Young children can be naturally self-focused, not realizing, for example, that the buddy they've invited over is watching instead of helping build the LEGO tower. Instead of simply instructing your child to include his friend in playing, pull him aside for a moment and ask, "Joey, what do you think Bobby feels like when you're doing all the building and not letting him play?"

Teaching sensitivity becomes especially important during the middle school years when kids aren't as accepting of one another and are much more aware of the social pecking order. Kids need to know that they don't have to be close buddies with everyone, but they do have to be sensitive to the feelings of others. Teach a confident child to put himself in the shoes of an insecure classmate, and help an insecure child understand that even kids who look confident often are not.

Friendship habit No. 3: Reach out

Ultimately, the only way for children to become friends is to spend time together. That means someone has to take the initiative, and someone has to facilitate the plan. Before kids can drive, a lot of their success as a friend will depend on you. Your daughter can say she wants to have Jennie over to visit, but she'll need your help to make that happen.

As children get into the preteen years, a huge part of being a good friend includes taking the risk of reaching out and inviting someone over to your house. This key friendship skill can start with you prompting your kids by asking, "Who do you want to get together with? OK, good. Why don't you ask her if she'd like to come over this Saturday?"

These habits take practice. As your child sees that these relational habits actually work, this progress will be the best possible incentive to continue trying. 

Shaunti Feldhahn is a social researcher and the author of For Parents Only.

Fearless Parenting

January 03, 2018
By Max Lucado
Shared by permission from Focus on the Family. Authored by Max Lucado.  

I don't care how tough you are. You may be a Navy Seal who specializes in high altitude skydiving behind enemy lines. You might spend each day making million-dollar, split-second stock market decisions. Doesn't matter. Every parent melts the moment he or she feels the full force of parenthood.

The semitruck of parenting comes loaded with fears. We fear failing the child, forgetting the child. Will we have enough money? Enough answers? Enough diapers? Vaccinations. Education. Homework. Homecoming. It's enough to keep a parent awake at night.

Fear distilleries concoct a high-octane brew for parents, a primal, gut-wrenching, pulse-stilling dose. Whether Mom and Dad keep vigil outside a neonatal unit, make weekly visits to a juvenile prison or hear the crunch of a bike and cry of a child in the driveway, their reaction is the same: "I've got to do something." No parent can sit still while his child suffers.

Jairus couldn't.

"Now when Jesus returned, a crowd welcomed him, for they were all expecting him. Then a man named Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, came and fell at Jesus' feet, pleading with him to come to his house because his only daughter, a girl of about twelve, was dying" (Luke 8:40-42).

Jairus was a Capernaum community leader, a synagogue ruler. Mayor, bishop and ombudsman, all in one. The kind of man a city would send to welcome a celebrity. But when Jairus approached Jesus on the Galilean shoreline, he wasn't representing his village; he was pleading on behalf of his child.

Giving our kids to God

Jairus isn't the only parent to run onto Gospel pages on behalf of a child.

The Canaanite mother. The father of the epileptic boy. Jairus. These three parents form an unwitting New Testament society: struggling parents of stricken children. They held the end of their rope in one hand and reached toward Christ with the other. In each case, Jesus responded. Deliberately. Quickly. Decisively.

Note to all panicking parents: Jesus never turned one away. In the story of Jairus, Jesus made the father's prayer his top priority. He heeded the concern in the parent's heart.

He will do the same for ours. After all, our kids were His kids first. "Don't you see that children are God's best gift? The fruit of the womb his generous legacy?" (Psalm 127:3, The Message, a paraphrase). When you look at your children, you look at God's most generous endowment. They upstage any divine grace He gives. Before they were yours, they were His. Even as they are yours, they are still His.

We tend to forget this fact, regarding our children as "our" children, as though we have the final say in their health and welfare. We don't. All people are God's people, including the small people who sit at our tables. Wise are the parents who regularly give their children back to God.

Parents, we can do this. We can be loyal advocates, stubborn intercessors. We can take our parenting fears to Christ. In fact, if we don't, we'll take our fears out on our kids. Fear turns some parents into paranoid prison guards who monitor every minute, check the background of every friend. They stifle growth and communicate distrust. A family with no breathing room suffocates a child.

On the other hand, fear can create permissive parents. For fear that their child will feel too confined or fenced in, they lower all boundaries. High on hugs and low on discipline. They don't realize that appropriate discipline is an expression of love. Permissive parents. Paranoid parents. How can we avoid the extremes? We pray.

Prayer is the saucer into which parental fears are poured to cool. Jesus says so little about parenting — no comments about spanking, breastfeeding, sibling rivalry or schooling. Yet His actions speak volumes about prayer. Each time a parent prays, Christ responds. His big message to moms and dads? Bring your children to Me. Raise them in a greenhouse of prayer.

When you send them off for the day, do so with a blessing. When you tell them goodnight, cover them in prayer. Pray that your children have a profound sense of place in this world and a heavenly place in the next.

Parents, we can't protect children from every threat in life, but we can take them to the Source of life. We can entrust our kids to Christ. Even then, however, our shoreline appeals might be followed by a difficult choice.

How Jesus Responds

As Jairus led Jesus through the crowded streets, "someone came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. 'Your daughter is dead,' he said. 'Don't bother the teacher any more.' Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, 'Don't be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed' " (Luke 8:49-50).

The hard reality of parenting reads something like this: You can do your best and still stand where Jairus stood. We need to know what Jesus will do when we entrust our kids to Him.

He unites the household. Jesus includes the mother. Up until this point, she has been, for whatever reason, out of the picture. But here, Christ unites them. He wants Mom and Dad to stand together in the struggle.

And He banishes unbelief: "Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said 'Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.' And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead. But He put them all outside" (Luke 8:52-54, NKJV).

God has a heart for hurting parents. Should we be surprised? After all, God himself is a father. What parental emotion has He not felt? Do you find yourself wanting to spare your child from all the hurt in the world? God did. And yet, He "did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32).

"All things" must include courage and hope.

Some of you find the story of Jairus difficult to hear. You prayed the same prayer he did; yet, you found yourself in a cemetery facing every parent's darkest night. What hope does the story of Jairus offer to you? Jesus resurrected his child; why didn't He save yours?

God understands your question. He buried a child, too. Death wasn't a part of His plan, and He hates it more than you do. God resurrected His precious one and will do the same with yours. Your child may not be in your arms, but your child is safely in His.

Others of you have been standing where Jairus stood for a long time. You've long since left the water's edge of offered prayer, yet haven't arrived at the household of answered prayer. At times you've felt like a breakthrough was nearing, that Christ was following you to your house. But you're not so sure anymore. You find yourself alone on the path, wondering if Christ has forgotten you and your child.

He hasn't. He never dismisses a parent's prayer. Keep giving your child to God, and in the right time and the right way, God will give your child back to you.

Tags: Max Lucado

The Purpose of Christmas

December 15, 2017
By Alex McFarland
Elementary Christmas Musical 2017
Article has been posted by permission from Focus on the Family. 

One of my family's favorite Christmas traditions is setting up the manger scene, which has been in my family for generations. My niece Allie eagerly helps us arrange the different pieces. She studies the placement of every angel and shepherd.

Allie loves to ask questions, and our manger scene usually prompts a few. "Did Jesus get cold?" she will ask. "Did Mary have a blanket to cover Him, or were the swaddling clothes warm enough?" One Christmas, my niece asked a more profound question: "Uncle Alex, why did baby Jesus come?"

"That's a great question, Allie," I said. "A very important one." My mind began cycling through the different possible responses. He came to fulfill prophecy. To display the power of God, yet identify with humanity. To conquer death, defeat Satan and demonstrate that He loves us all.

But before I could answer, Allie asked another question, one that paved the way for the best answer to her first one: "Why did Jesus have to die on the Cross?"

Why did Jesus come? Why did He die? I've always loved the inquisitive minds of children, but my niece asking these questions at the same time presented an interesting mix of innocence and insight. Those two questions really are inseparable. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to earth to die. And when we help our children understand the reasons behind this mission, Christmas becomes all the more meaningful.

The bigger Christmas story

Every Christmas, families around the world read the story of Christ's birth found in the Gospel of Luke. It's a great tradition, but it's important that we help our children understand the backstory to the events in Luke 2. The full Christmas story begins thousands of years earlier in the Garden of Eden, with the temptation and fall of the first two human beings.

In Genesis 2:16-17, God gave Adam a single command: "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." We soon learn that Adam and Eve, deceived by the Serpent, did eat the forbidden fruit, and God evicted them from the garden. While Adam and Eve did not keel over dead that instant, God told them that physical degradation and death had now become part of the human experience.

By disobeying God, Adam and Eve brought sin into our world. And as a result, a sin nature — or a bent toward evil — was passed on to the rest of humanity. Every human being — from Adam to all of us — is hardwired to follow his or her own will instead of God's.

We are all part of the Fall

Do your children recognize that they share in this sin nature, that they have their own bent toward evil? I think many children (and probably many adults) think of sin and evil as terms that describe someone like Hitler, a drug dealer or their Uncle Leroy who divorced six wives. Help your children recognize that their personal sin nature is not measured against the evils they see on television or in history books, but against the perfect goodness of the Creator. Not one of us matches His righteousness.

God defines sin as selfishness, anger, untruthfulness, and so on. These "minor" sins are as incompatible with His glory and presence as the things that most of us would say are "major" sins, such as murder, robbery, adultery. And when we choose to sin — when we choose our way instead of God's way — we face the same consequences as Adam and Eve: physical and spiritual death and an eternal separation from God.

Our job as parents is to help our kids recognize the simple truth of Romans 3:23: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." When your children begin to recognize their own sin nature, that they themselves fall short of God's glory when they disobey or speak with disrespect or don't tell the truth, then the need for God's grace through Jesus becomes more apparent.

Younger children may need a concrete example of how much higher God's standard for righteousness and purity is than ours. One way to illustrate this is with a cup of sugar. Show your children the sugar as you measure it out, and then pour it into a bowl. Let them dip their fingers in the sugar and taste it. Now add a tiny pinch of salt. Mix it in and let your children taste again. The amount of salt won't affect what they taste, but they still know it's not pure sugar anymore. Explain that, like the salt, our sins — even "tiny" ones that don't seem to be that big a deal — may not be detectible to us, but they are still there, making us impure in God's sight.

Our sin nature is unacceptable to God. But He loves us so much that He wants to help us fix our problem. And that, ultimately, is why Jesus came. God sent His Son as a gift to rescue humankind from sinfulness.

The cost of the gift

One question always seems to surface whenever young children or teenagers begin to grasp the reality of sin: If God really loves us and wants to fix our sin nature, why doesn't He just forgive us? Why did Jesus have to die?

I always tell young people that God takes sin very seriously. As you read and discuss different Bible stories as a family, keep that point at the front of your discussions: God takes sin seriously. Sin is always a serious act against God that requires a consequence.

Hebrews 9:22 puts this in stark terms: "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." Before Jesus came, God established a sacrificial system of animals so that people could offer payment for their sins. But these sacrifices were a temporary and incomplete payment. While they symbolically pointed toward the need for Jesus, there could be no final, perfect sacrifice until One came who had no sin nature.

When our kids ask why Jesus died, we can tell them that there was no better option available to God. It was either this or destroying every sinner. But because of His great love for us, God took all of our deserved punishment upon himself.

All of this is probably a longer conversation than what you'll have as your kids set up the manger scene or decorate the tree. But understanding why Jesus came and died is the cornerstone of our faith. It needs to continue to be the foundation of our faith conversations.

Jesus Christ was born for a purpose.

Alex McFarland is the director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University and the author of  The 21 Toughest Questions Your Kids Will Ask About Christianity.

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