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By Tim Elmore, Used by Permission from Focus on the Family--
When my son Jonathan was young, we did what many dads and sons do. We played Wiffle ball in our yard. My son has a number of talents, but we soon discovered that swinging a bat in such a way that it would make contact with a ball is not one of them. But I've always loved baseball, and I desperately wanted my son to succeed at the sport. I found myself making it easier and easier. I moved closer, threw the ball slower.
Eventually, Jonathan hit the ball. I'm pretty sure it was an accident, but we both celebrated anyway. Of course, then he wanted to keep hitting, and since we had a good thing going, I didn't want to let him down, didn't want to see him fail. I made hitting the ball so easy, it was almost T-ball.
Later, we actually did sign him up for T-ball. He stood in the outfield, staring at his mitt or into space. It just wasn't his thing. But I couldn't let Jonathan fail at the game I loved so much. And I really didn't want him to believe that he was failing.
Eventually, my attempts to avoid the reality of my son's limitations caught up with me — and with Jonathan. All the steps I'd taken to make baseball easy for him were appropriate when he was 5 years old. They were not as appropriate as he entered fourth grade. By not allowing him to experience reality, I'd given him some false expectations and assumptions. He believed he was pretty good at baseball — and drew laughter from peers when they saw him play. And so one day we had a little heart-to-heart talk. I confessed my long desire to protect him from failing at the sport.
We all want to see our kids succeed in school, in sports and in life. But we often parent in ways that can stunt maturity. We remove failure and disappointment, pain and heartbreak, believing we will ruin our children's self-esteem if they experience these things.
Now, I agree that kids need to feel special and believe they can be successful. But this doesn't mean we shield them from reality. The opposite is true. Genuine, healthy self-esteem develops when caring adults identify children's strengths but also allow them the satisfaction and maturity that come from persevering through failure, pain and disappointment. This authentic triumph builds tough emerging adults.
Allowing kids to face reality creates resilience, strength and confidence. Here are four well-intentioned yet misguided ways that parents often shield their kids from the realities of life. By avoiding these parenting mistakes, we can help our kids gain the strength they need to thrive no matter what comes their way:
We won't let kids fail
This was probably my main mistake with my son and his experiences in baseball. I couldn't stand to see him fail.
Think of how our culture has changed. In the past, when a student got in trouble in school, maybe got a bad grade or failed a class, parents reinforced the teacher's decisions and insisted the student work harder. Too many parents today side with their child, blaming the teacher for the poor report. They've made their children their trophies — a reflection of the parents' success. So every kid must be a winner or get the great grade, even if they didn't learn a subject or win a championship. Obviously, this is not how life works after childhood.
Life teaches lessons in a way that parenting sometimes cannot. As parents, we must embrace the reality that character, faith and resilience are often developed through failure. Identify opportunities to allow your children to take calculated risks, to experience outright failure on a project or in a class, a hobby or a sport.
Coach them, yes, but don't intervene and do it for them. Let them build emotional muscle that is capable of enduring a failure and seeing that they can live through it — that there really is life afterward.
We value removing all pain
When our daughter, Bethany, was in middle school, her school hosted a dance. Our daughter's middle school years were like many girls': She didn't look like the beautiful young woman that she would someday become. So she waited and waited for a boy to ask her to the dance. My wife and I began hearing about other parents intervening. They called friends and requested that their sons ask their little girls to the dance. They gave suggestions on where to eat and what flowers to buy. They even offered to pay. We considered this. It would have ended the painful waiting, might even have boosted Bethany's self-esteem. But we knew this might be a good time for our daughter to learn how to navigate a painful situation. We had many conversations with her, reminiscing about difficult social events in our day. We then suggested that she could go with a group of friends. She grew satisfied with that solution, even appearing content.
And then, at the last minute, a friend did ask her to the dance. Ugh — middle school boys!
Discover Your Strengths and Weaknesses as a Parent
Good parents aren't perfect. And that's okay. There's no formula to follow, but there are ways you can grow every day.
We live in a world that believes in removing all pain from our children's lives. But my wife and I wondered: Is a life really better if it has less pain but fails to prepare a child for the unavoidable pain later in adulthood?
Do not mistake the role of comforter as being one who removes all discomfort. Pain is often a valuable gift from God, a lesson in how to avoid harmful situations. Real harm only results if we fail to heed what the pain is telling us to do. We need to collaborate with our children to help them navigate through the pain, empower them to deal with the heartache that accompanies life, and encourage them to remain grateful and content. This equips our future adults to stand strong in difficult moments.
We prioritize happiness
My son's fifth-grade year was tough. His best friend moved away, leaving him without a classmate who shared his interests. Our fun-loving son grew quiet and reserved. He wasn't gifted at sports, so recess became a lonely time. He never complained, but my wife and I could tell he was miserable. When we asked what he did on the playground, he replied, "Oh, I just walk around by myself." I cringed. And I began trying to "fix" the problem. What steps could we take to make recess more fun?
"It's OK, Dad," my son interrupted. "Recess gives me time to think."
I was proud of Jonathan that he never whined or expected us to fix things. And we did work together on solutions that enabled him to move beyond his misery. Things really turned around when he got involved with community theater. Here our son encountered a new circle of friends and was able to use his growing gifts in a meaningful way. In the end, the answer did not lie in him pursuing fun and happiness, but in finding a place where he could discover and develop his gifts.
We're living in a different culture than the one we grew up in — one where happiness is a goal instead of a byproduct. Who doesn't want their children to be happy? Especially when it comes to the big decisions in their lives — whom they marry, their career path, their faith and values. Yet we as parents often don't know how to balance wise counsel with our yearning for our kids to be happy.
We mustn't pursue happiness itself as a selfish pleasure. Life is quite a paradox. If happiness is the goal for our kids, we will create consumers who want more and more to make them happy. But if the goal is loftier — giving, serving, participating in the grand plans God has for us — happiness is often a nice side effect.
We take away the fight
I recently read an article about the parenting habits among certain groups of wealthy parents. Some of these were truly bizarre. Did you know that, if your pockets are deep enough, you can hire "recreation experts" to help your kids play with each other, to learn about sharing, cooperating and managing conflict? Few parents can afford such parenting aids, but I wonder if many of us aren't guilty (to a lesser extent) of the same principle: We seek to remove adversity from our kids' lives. We make games easier, rush to fix boredom, jump in to help with difficult assignments.
Life requires struggle in order for kids to mature. Facing and overcoming adversity conditions us to be strong enough to handle what's ahead. Opposition and hardship force us to reach down and pull out the very best that lies within us. As parents, we must pause before we provide direction or assistance for our children. It's normal to want to remove hardship, but it's not in their best interests. They need us to be responsive to them and demanding of them at the same time. Encourage them that they have what it takes to overcome adversity. Brainstorm a plan to beat it.
I remember finding a chrysalis in a backyard tree when I was kid. I laid it on our driveway and waited for the butterfly to spring out. But it wasn't happening. Of course, I'd heard that you shouldn't help a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis, but wouldn't just a little help be OK? I pried open the chrysalis a tiny bit, and finally a leg poked out. After waiting and watching awhile, I helped some more. I continued to pry the chrysalis open until the opening was big enough for the creature to emerge. But it wasn't a butterfly that crawled out. The creature was dark and deformed and never flew. It died by the end of the day.
My help really wasn't help. When I removed the struggle, I took away the butterfly's opportunity to build enough strength to push its way out. In the end, I actually removed its ability to fly.
When we give kids the freedom to fight and fail and find their way through the pain of life, we are not hurting them. We are helping them build the strength they need to fly.
Tim Elmore is the president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit that helps develop young leaders.
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.
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.
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 ... ?
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).
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!
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.
[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.