Unlike consumer products, parenting comes without instructions or guarantees. We all want our children to grow up happy, healthy, successful, and involved with positive-minded family and friends. However, our children live in a broken world, and it has a way of breaking young people, sooner or later, one way or another. But there is real hope because some young people do indeed grow up well. So, what’s a parent to do, in the face of the sinful human nature and a toxic popular culture, to raise a truly healthy young adult?
We tend to focus on what we can implement to protect our kids by setting appropriate boundaries, establishing positive activities, and providing safe environments in which our kids can grow. While those are all important aspects of raising “good kids,” they are not enough.
1 Samuel 16:7 says, “The Lord does not look at the things of man. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Apparently, God is more interested in the inner life than the outer life, therefore we should be concerned primarily with the inner life of our children. Unfortunately, most parents focus primarily on the behavior of their kids – the outer life. Parents often react to symptoms, rather than causes. But outward behavior is not isolated from the heart of the child. Behavior is a reflection of the inner reality. Therefore, it is not possible to fix outward behavior permanently without dealing with the problems of the heart.
There is no formula for fixing problem behaviors in children, but an inside-out approach will be more effective than behavior management.
Growing Up Too Fast
A major source of the problem is that kids are growing up too fast. In many cases, the parents are giving them the rights of adulthood without training them how to be hardworking, self-controlled, discerning, empathetic, and responsible. Too many kids are raising themselves, with the only guidance coming from their peers and the media.
We set up kids for failure when we empower them with adult rights, freedoms, and products that they cannot yet handle responsibly. It is like giving a ten-year old a Ferrari. He may know all about sports cars – he races them in video games and researches them online, after all – yet he can’t reach the pedals or see over the steering wheel. Similarly, many parents are giving children too much luxury and freedom, too soon. So, when faced with concerns about the age-appropriateness of a movie or whether to let a seventh grader date, more parents should consider “What’s the hurry?” and “How is how is this going to affect his heart?”
Protection Against Problem Behavior
Boundaries are absolutely necessary for young people. Every child should know the meaning of no. Most parents realize that very young children need plenty of boundaries. Certainly, we need to protect kids from blatantly dangerous situations. And we learn that, as time goes by, they should get increasingly more freedoms and responsibilities, until one day they are independent and can handle living alone. While infants and toddlers need the most boundaries, young adults (17+) should not need any. As they develop, we need to train them to protect themselves from the more subtle dangers of adolescence: cheating, lying, gossiping, cyber-bullying, social media addiction, and narcissism – to name a few.
Boundaries Are Not Enough
And here is where we often get off track. Well-meaning parents will hyper-focus on setting just the right boundaries and consequences for problem behaviors. But it is not nearly enough to have appropriate rules for computer usage, the latest internet filters, and appropriate consequences in place. It is far more important that problem behaviors in children are approached from the inside out.
The Power of Relationship
A healthy relationship between parent and child is the closest thing we have to an answer. Consider Josh McDowell’s wisdom: “Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.” We can set all the right boundaries (according to child development experts), but it’s all for naught, if we neglect our relationships with our children. It is essential that, through it all, our children know that we are not the enemy, we are the parents, and we love them no matter what.
The relationship between parent and child is the foundation of love upon which everything is built, while the rules are the walls of protection. Both are essential. Danny Silk writes: “The goal isn’t to get them to clean their room; it is to strengthen the connection to your heart. We will deal with the room, but if we lose the connection, we’ve lost the big stuff. We may win the battle, but we’ve lost the war.”
The Old Testament, known largely for its emphasis on rules, says something profound about relationship. Notice the intimate language, which portrays how parents are to relate to God and their children. Deuteronomy 6:5-7 says, “Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give today are to be on your hearts. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road…” It does not take a theologian to interpret that parents should sit with, walk with, and talk with their children about all sorts of things, including the things of God. It seems that both the Christian life and parenting are meant to be about relationships, not merely sets of rules.
Building Inside-Out Relationships
While rules and parental discipline are a necessary component of the relationship, children should know that they are loved “as is” and that they have parents who are first their authority and then their friend. Discipline begins and ends with a loving relationship.
Most parents deeply love their children but do not express their love in the most effective ways. Kids NEED to know that they are loved for who they are inside, not conditional on any performance, talent, beauty, or athleticism. Watch your words, mom and dad. They stick like darts. Many children feel that their parents love them when… or if… or as long as…
There are countless ways that an adult can bless a young person. In Trent & Smalley’s book, The Blessing, dozens of specific examples are given by people who were greatly blessed by their parents. Here are a few of those testimonies:
- My parents would take the time to really listen to me when I talked to them by looking directly into my eyes.
- We were often spontaneously getting hugged, even apart from a task or chore.
- Even when I was very overweight in high school, my parents still made me feel attractive.
Kids need to be filled with love, acceptance, laughter, and praise for a job well-done. Their emotional tanks are not full every morning. They need affirmations daily – real compliments. On the other hand, kids can smell a fib a mile away. Only truth blesses. They do not need to be lied to in any way when they exhibit a poor effort or a bad attitude. They need and respect honest, clear, kind communication when a job is poorly done or an attitude is rude. Self-esteem must be earned, and it’s the job of a parent to help their children earn it.
Give kids jobs to do, pay them, train them, and congratulate them. Allow them to see the joy of a job well done in service to others. Make finishing tasks essential, and reward them for it. Be sure to rest on Sunday as well, and make that a special time of relaxation and joy.
Give kids real work and pay them real money. Yes, give them real responsibilities, as much as possible, so they get the sense that they are important, and that their good work is greatly valued by real people. Also, show them that shoddy or incomplete work is a real problem for real people. Parenting author, Mark Gregston, says,“Kids need to be given responsibilities in the family that they can claim and make happen without parental badgering. It builds a sense of value and belonging.”
What you say is important, but what you do is essential. Parenting should be more about controlling yourself than controlling anyone else. Perfection is not the goal, but honesty and a certain amount of transparency are incredibly helpful for children. Parenting should be more about controlling yourself than controlling anyone else. Christopher DeVinck explains, “The more a parent points out things to their children, the more the children will take it upon themselves to select, identify, listen to, see, embrace. Life imitates life. Children do what adults do.”
Our kids, no matter the age, need us to be with them, explaining what makes one thing beautiful and another ugly, why one thing is important and the other trivial, and why this is quite right and that is all wrong. “With” is the key. A relationship such as this is what makes the world a better place, one person at a time. But this kind of relationship is not born with a few quick moments per day. It is born in quantity-time and quality-time.
Kids need to be trained how to handle their inner lives. They need to learn how to be self-controlled, without “stuffing” emotions away permanently. They need to learn to “unpack” their feelings and process the difficulties inside their hearts and minds. Try to help them see the truths and untruths in their thoughts and feelings.
Boys especially need permission to have an internal life. Give approval to their wide-ranging emotions, as long as they behave civilly. Their tendency will be to hide their emotions at every turn, but this is not healthy. Help them use words to express their feelings effectively, since it is not in their nature or in their culture to speak openly about their feelings. So, give respect to their inner life, and speak about your own inner life. Share your own likes, dislikes, fears, sorrows, regrets, hopes, and weaknesses with them.
Children and teenagers should be allowed to express themselves by choosing their hobbies, but parental guidance is important here. Video games, TV, movies, and the internet must be limited. Media addiction, especially video games among boys, is an epidemic. Many people are labeling this generation as the “children of the screen,” and they are earning the moniker “screenagers.” Instead, kids need to be making music, drawing pictures, creating games, and playing outdoors. Many of these activities should include parents, siblings, and other children.
Our kids are growing up in this isolating world, and it’s up to us – the adults they rely upon – to teach them how to engage with others. And as usual, the answer begins with being a good role model. So, if we are not involved in a variety of communities, then we need to find some to join, and include our children, so they can see us living it out – the good and the bad. Kids need to see and feel the benefits of interdependence, not just independence.
Get kids involved in communities of friends and family. Team sports are good, but that’s just one circle. Get kids involved with others – sharing, collaborating, compromising, even fighting for what is right. Then talk with them about how things are going with their peers.
Some children grow up with a strong sense that all mistakes are personal failures. These kids dread the thought of a mistake of any kind. Instead, mistakes should be seen as opportunities to learn something important. Without mistakes, we aren’t learning and growing. Author Jon Carroll wrote, “Success is boring. Success is proving that you can do something that you already know you can do. Failure is how we learn. I have been told of an African phrase describing a good cook as ‘she who has broken many pots.’ If you’ve spent enough time in the kitchen to have broken a lot of pots, probably you know a fair amount about cooking.” Fight childhood perfectionism, for it is a lifelong curse.
Whether it’s a left-handed layup, a math problem, or a new technological skill, kids need to be encouraged to do things poorly at first, then a little better each time, until they make real progress. Then encourage them some more. “See! I knew you could do it! You have improved so much! I’m proud of you. Really proud.”
Kids bond with people who make them smile and laugh. Sometimes you don’t have to be all that fun or funny, as long as you will share fun stuff with kids. If you think something is funny or cool, then in all likelihood a kid will think so too. Sharing a laugh is a “force multiplier” in the war for your child’s heart.
There are no guarantees that our children will grow up well or that they will not have a tumultuous adolescence. However, the inside-out approach is the better way. Rather than setting up the perfect set of rules, barriers, and consequences, parents and their children are better served by spending more time together, building healthier relationships. For a child will be far less likely to engage in problem behaviors when he or she feels deeply loved, known, and respected by his or her parents.
- Andy Kerckhoff (February 2012)
Seel, David John. Parenting Without Perfection. NavPress. 2000.
Silk, Danny. Loving Our Kids On Purpose. Destiny Image Publishers. 2008.
Trent, Jon & Smalley, Gary. The Blessing. Nelson Books. 1993.
VanVonderen, Jeff. Families Where Grace is in Place. Bethany House Publishers. 1992.