Guest post by my friends, Jim and Lynne Jackson
Among the thousands of parents we’ve met, all say in one fashion or another, “I want what’s best for my kids. I want them to grow up ready for the world. I want to guide them well.”
Yup, parents have great intentions for their kids. We see it consistently. But somewhere between their aspirations and their call to us for help something goes haywire. Not for lack of good intentions, but for lack of understanding. And when parents begin to understand what we’re about to share here, things begin to change.
It starts simply enough. The parent does what “works.” Maybe a method learned in a book or online. Or maybe a friend gave some advice because it “worked for my kid!” The kids do what the parent asks, not because of any internal change, but because under the surface they fear the outcome if they don’t. Over time as the pattern repeats, the fear turns to resentment and resentment turns to rage. Soon the momentum feels unstoppable.
The truth is, kids’ blow ups almost always start as a slow burn, sometimes imperceptible, especially at first. Heat builds as parents’ well-intended efforts irritate the kids – even if the kids comply at first. The parents and children grow further and further apart as kids rebel from this dynamic and parents dig in to “be the parent.”
From this pressure cooker comes the parents’ common cry: “Help!” Whether wanting kids to understand the importance of respecting others; develop a sense of responsibility; or more simply, to clean up messes, treat each other better, and do homework, these parents essentially all ask us the same question,
“Why is there such a big disconnect between what I want my kids to get from me and what they seem to be getting from me?”
It turns out that there is a very clear reason, and we do whatever we can to help parents understand it. We’ve learned over the years that effective parents focus less on right behavior, and more on God-honoring identity.
Here’s how this works: Your child has just left another mess on the dinner table in spite of your clear instruction to clean it up. A behavior-focused statement might be something to this effect, “You left a mess again. Why are you so messy? Now clean it up or you’ll get a consequence!” The parent will firmly follow through and either the mess will get cleaned or the consequence administered.
Sounds good right? When parents focus on behavior they tend to evaluate effectiveness based on immediate results. If the child complied, then the discipline “worked.” But there is always more to surface behavior than meets the eye. Behavior grows out of a belief system. So it’s helpful to ask, “What is my child believing about themselves?” when it’s time to discipline.
Under the surface of behavior-focused interactions, kids are learning far less about right from wrong than they are about what mom or dad thinks about that child. And this is REALLY important because our children look to what we think about them to help them figure out for themselves who they are. They form their identity, their beliefs about who they are around their perceptions of what we think and say. So let’s look at this behavior-focused approach to see what kids might be learning to believe about themselves.
Consider the first phrase the child hears from the behavior-focused statement. “You left a mess again.” Implicit in this statement are subtle messages. First, the word “you” suggests the problem isn’t the mess, but the child. The word “again” implies this has happened before. So right at the outset the identity message a child likely perceives is “I am a frequent problem.” If this is the normal sort of approach then the child forms self-identity according to the messages.
In an identity-focused approach parents learn to take great care of their language and perceived meaning. The statement might be addressed more like this, “I see you haven’t gotten to that mess just yet. What is your plan about that?”
In this approach the statement is about the mess, not about the child. The question enlists the child’s problem solving ability, thus communicating the message, “You can do this, you are capable of solving this,” while keeping the child accountable for the cleaning. This also communicates an important message, “You are responsible.”
Now, knowing that any parent reading this is madly in love with your kids (even if there is frustration about challenging behaviors ;-), we invite you to consider what identity messages your kids get when you discipline them? Here are the most common messages parents tell us they want their kids to believe about themselves:
“You’re loved no matter what!”
“You’re a child of God, built for God’s purposes!”
“You are capable!”
“You are blessed!”
“You are a miracle.”
“You are fearfully and wonderfully made!”
Imagine coming to every discipline situation equipped with the primary goal and skills to communicate these timeless truths.
To help you think about this more practically, find a quiet spot alone and say the things you say to your kids when you discipline them. Use the same energy and same tone of voice. How does it sound? What messages are being conveyed by your tone of voice, your words, and your body language? Most parents trying this the first time discover that they are not sending the messages they want to send. It’s normal because it’s what we’ve learned. To send different messages try it again. Say it differently, remembering that your little ones are looking to help them figure out who they are. Try delivering the words in a way that the message your kids hear is “You’re loved no matter how you behave!”
As your kids grow in this identity they’ll want to obey you out of love, not fear (see 1 John 4:18). Your discipline will not just get them to immediately behave well, but it will help them develop an identity from which they will want to behave right because it is consistent with their identity. Our world needs more kids like this and those kids are looking to you to help them figure out who they really are!
Jim and Lynne Jackson are speakers, authors, and parent coaches, with over fifty years of combined professional experience working with children, teens, and families. In 2002 they founded Connected Families to guide parents toward peace, connection, and authentic faith in their homes. They have co-authored How to Grow a Connected Family and Discipline That Connects With Your Child’s Heart, (the second edition set to release September 20, 2016, Baker/Bethany House).