Being Honest with our Kids

A few weeks ago my friend Laurie, who has 4 kids under 6 years old, messaged me with question about using the word disappointed in response to a kids action. “Is it okay to tell your child that you’re disappointed in them?” It’s a question that I’ve considered quite a bit since she asked. On one hand I want my kids to know that what they do and say in life will have an impact on others, myself included, but on the other hand I don’t want them to have to interpret my choice of words to determine how displeased I am with them. Disappointed is a word that I hear quite a bit and even comes from my mouth at times. Since my friend asked me this question, I’ve struggled to understand what the word really means.

Does the feeling of disappointment mean that you’re sad or angry? Ashamed or frustrated? Hurt or resentful? Or perhaps it means annoyed, irritated, or some other somewhat vague expression? These are just some of the words that come to mind when I consider what disappointed might mean. It might be different for you, but I think the response of a parent is the same regardless of the meaning of the word.

As parents, it’s our responsibility to help our kids name and express things about themselves that might be otherwise difficult to access. For example. When one of my kids gets angry at their sister or brother, they often express that anger in very passive aggressive ways. They’ll growl, slyly bump into the other as they walk past, take the object of contention (this morning it was a blue plate), or roll their eyes. All these actions do nothing in terms of naming the emotion that they feel. The other person probably has a good idea that things aren’t well, but it’s guesswork.

Those few examples of passive-aggressive behavior is why I think it’s important for parents to express their own sense of emotional responses towards their kids in a way that is as specific as possible. Telling a child (and by child, I mean someone under 12) that you’re disappointed in their behavior might be truthful to what you’re experiencing, but I don’t think it’s completely honest to what you’re feeling. Try to name the emotion in terms of where the disappointment is coming from — try to identify the core emotion of Hurt, Sad, Anger, Shame, Fear, or Lonely. More often than not, your disappointment comes from wanting/desiring something more for your child and them choosing not to pursue that same desire. Most often disappointment is veiled anger, sadness, and hurt.

One caveat to this is that as kids mature and become more capable to understanding more complexities of life, the use of words like disappointment, annoyed, frustrated, or irritated might be appropriate fodder for conversations. But even then, I’d encourage the exploration and expression of core emotions to support and explain why those are being felt.


Being easy on kids

I often vacillate between two approaches to parenting: strength and tenderness. Holding both together at the same time is difficult. When I’m only being strong with my kids, strict boundaries and immediate consequences, I often feel that I’m missing them and if I’m giving them too much to bear. On the flip side, when I’m only tender with them, not reacting to their violation but welcoming them into forgiveness without clear consequences, I’m giving them too much power.

At the core, kids are always asking their parents if they are loved and if they can get what their way. Exhibiting only strength tells them that they cannot get their way and that they are not loved. On the other side, Exhibiting only tenderness tells them that they are indeed loved and that they can get their way. Neither of these are very good options (nor is the response, which I won’t delve into much here, that they are not loved and that they can get their way, which is neither strong nor tender) in and of themselves.

Being a good parent requires, among other attributes, a lot of self-sacrifice, patience, and sleep; and ultimately good parenting goes only as far as the parent’s ability to be the adult/grown-up with their kids. Mimicking their child’s behavior in response to the child is telling the child one thing, and one thing only: You are not safe with me. You are not safe because I don’t have the ability to manage my own emotions, and when you need me most (which is often when a child has royally messed up), your emotions are going to erupt and go everywhere. Our kids need us to be the adults, the healthy ones who can manage our emotions and not let ourselves get out of control. This is not to say that emotions need to stay internalized or to not be expressed, but that they be expressed in a way that is constructive, not destructive. I’ve spoken with a lot of parents who get the emotions right, but deliver them in harmful and subtly destructive ways.

Exhibiting both strength and tenderness with kids tells them that they are indeed loved, so much so that it would be unloving to not bring about some sense of consequence due to their actions. Strength and tenderness is when your lap and arms are open for your child to crawl up into after you’ve dolled out some consequence. When our kids know that we’re going to be a safe place for them to return, they are free to be who they were created to be. There is freedom, ultimately the only way of freedom, in boundaries, consequences, and rules.

Kids, Language, and Wisdom

A few weeks ago I was cooking dinner and noticed that my oldest was reading the dictionary. Curious, I asked him what he was learning. He told me that he’d gotten the dictionary at school and he was just “looking around” and continued to flip pages. I noticed that he had stopped in the “S” section. I had a hunch what he was looking for.

“What words are you looking up,” I asked. “Oh nothing really,” he said with a sheepish and somewhat embarrassed look on his face.

We bantered back and forth a bit until he told me that one of the kids at school had spelled “shit” during lunch and everyone giggled. I asked him what that word meant, and he shrugged saying that’s the word he was looking up in the dictionary.

As we continued talking, it was clear to me that he and his friends were learning new words that had already, at age 8, been deemed “bad” words. Bad and Good aren’t very helpful categories in life, especially when dealing with the immaterial, and thus I wanted to help him understand that words are neither good or bad. I explained that words are like trees — they just are what they are. How we choose to use these words determines if it’s helpful or not. We can use trees to make houses, paper, furniture and a host of other things that can have helpful uses. In the same light, some people could use wood for harmful uses such as arrows, a battering ram, or as a bat/club to hurt someone.

As parents, its our responsibility to help our kids learn how to engage with the world that they live in: Not necessarily to protect them from it. It might have been a lot easier to take the dictionary away from my son, or to tell him not to look up those words for fear of how he might misuse them. But this reaction would only reinforce his curiosity about these words as taboo topics.

Parents need to help their kids deconstruct cultural meanings ascribed to certain words and help them fashion a wisdom-oriented approach to using language. Not everyone who knows the definition of “shit” can be wise enough to know when and how to use it. Sometimes, there are appropriate uses of words that have otherwise been labeled as “bad”, just as there are times where the use of that word can be damaging and harmful to others: It takes wisdom to know the difference.

Parenting as a journey with kids

Lately I’ve been studying and researching on the nature/effect of shame in our lives. There are a number of fantastic resources that have provided a lot of help for me personally and professionally as I consider shame-based systems. One of the systems I’ve been considering lately is the family.

One clear sign of a shame-based family is the drive for perfection. Expecting family members to be or behave “perfect” is the penultimate form of performance. And while most, if not all, parents would admit to not expecting perfection from their children more often than not rules, demands, and expectations parents place on children are absorbed as the need to be perfect by the children. The pervasive underlying message is that in order to be accepted, one must perform above the fold of satisfactory behavior. Judgements are quick and plentiful that create lifestyles with hidden desires and actions.

Recently I had a conversation with a family to help with their oldest son and his use of drugs, alcohol, and sex while in college. During our conversation, I explored the rest of the family interactions and relationships. They explained to me that the two younger siblings were not a problem because their behavior was respectable and good, but the oldest was sinning and betraying the family.

The more the parents talked, the more clear it became that all of the children were responding to the expectation the parents had of their family being perfect. There was a sense that both mom and dad needed their kids to live a life that looked mature and respectable. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but left unchecked this “need” from your kids could leave some difficult issues to deal with. Living in the middle-Tennessee area, a very wealthy and affluent region, is difficult for a lot of families even if they do not realize it. There’s an expectation to have it together, be wealthy, and not have any personal cracks/issues in life (this reality is not just limited to this area of the country, but happens to be quite strong here).

The parents wanted only to focus on the oldest child’s behavior and how to curtail the rebellious spirit. I challenged the parents to first look at themselves and how they have perpetuated an environment where the son would “act-out” in this way. Their response, which is understandable and quite normal, was to focus on the actions of the son. While his actions certainly need focus and attention, the larger issue at hand was that of the family values, system, and roles.

Parenting is about guiding, engaging, and journeying alongside your child in order to help them become who they were created to be: Not who parents want them to be. The most difficult part of parenting is that children cannot be controlled. No matter how hard parents try, kids will ultimately do what they will do. And this reality is difficult and painful.

Kids break things, hurt others, express themselves in ways that do not conform to the cultural norm , and push the boundaries. The common thread in all of these seemingly “errant” behaviors is that they are exploring themselves and their world looking for way to to be connected to what and who is around them. There are obvious limits that parents need to set for children, but as they mature and get older they need to be allowed them to have more freedom and expression of their lives.

The most relationally adept parents that I see are those that come alongside their kids in walking with them in their journey through life. When parents and kids can meet together at the intersection in the disappointment of life, powerful relationships are built.

Parenting is an exercies in powerlessness

Ultimately, I do not have the ability to change my children. They are humans with the same free will that I have, and the same level of uniqueness that I have. So often I want them to be like me. To do like I would do, to react and respond like I would react and respond, well, most of the time. But they don’t. They live in their world and have their own unique way of dealing with life. Often times, this makes me angry.
Just this morning my 7 year old decided that he wanted the blue plate for breakfast, and despite his younger brother protests, he took the plate for his own ignoring the fact that his younger brother had already put pancakes on the blue plate for himself. I was dumbfounded. Why on God’s green earth did my oldest think that he could just take what he wants? In this moment, not to be said for every moment, I chose to calmly intervene. We worked it out, but ultimately I was really angry that my kids would be so creul to each other. And I realized: I am powerless to change my children. I can teach them, show them, and engage with them as their dad, but how they choose to deal with me, or anyone else for that matter, is ultimately up to them.
As parents, we only have to be responsible for our behaviors and how we interact with our kids. Sure, legally we are responsible for what our kids do, but even in that we cannot control them. They will choose to do as they please, often times just to show us this is true. Successful parenting really only requires me to be the adult in the situation. Let the kids be the kids, and you focus on being the adult in the situation.

Sports, Passion, and Remembering

Over the past couple of years, my oldest has developed an addiction of sorts to watching college football. I no doubt am to blame for this, and while I feel there is some some negative outcomes of this addiction (as is the case with any addiction), it’s been a true joy to snuggle up next to my little man and watch football together. Often times my wife will comment that God is smiling on me and shows this by giving me a son who enjoys football as much as I do.

Sometimes while we’re watching, I’ll wonder how to take the passion he and I have for football and create something with it. I’m a big fan of creating as an expression of worship, and watching football does not lend itself towards creativity. It’s a consumer driving sport where men and women sit on their couches for hours at a time living vicariously through the players on the television. But I cannot escape that college football is a passion of mine, and now it has become so for my son as well. For this, I’m grateful. We have some great times together celebrating victories, and learning how to handle defeat. No doubt you’re very familiar with the glory of a victory and the agony of defeat, not limited to but especially if you’re a sports fan.

What I’m learning is that kids have an amazing capacity for absorbing the actions, affects, emotions, and beliefs from their parents. This might not be a new concept, but in the passion filled living room during a football game, there might not be a better opportunity for me to exemplify responsibility in my craze towards the sports. Get excited, go nuts, scream, shout, hug, and jump for joy when your team is down 5 and blocks a punt with less than a minute remaining in the game. And when your team throws an interception on the ensuring drive to end the game, and comeback, grieve the loss; be sad. But remember. Remember that little eyes are watching your every move. Watching how you throw your hat across the room, how you emotionally shut down, become numb and lose sight of what’s in front or around you. Remember that the sun will rise tomorrow and while this is a disappointing way to end, it’s not the end.

Our kids need us to teach them basic skills for life, be it how to change the oil in a car or change a flat tire, but what our kids need most from us dads is for us to remember them. To remember they are watching, learning, and waiting for us to show them how to respond. And in all of that, there is freedom to not get it right. Freedom to become so caught up in the moment(s) that you do forget. Because the reality is that it’s not about what you’ve done, but what you’ll do next.