What Do You Think About That?

A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son grief to his mother. Proverbs 10:1

There are parents all across the U.S. struggling with the foolish decisions of their children.  I myself have often wondered about my own son, “why did you do that?”  I really wish that children came out of the womb with all the tools they needed to make wise decisions.   Unfortunately children are born ill equipped for the thousands of decisions they will make in there life time.  How then do we as parents train our children to make wise decisions?

I believe that we train children to make wise decisions by asking the question, what do you think about that?  When children become teenagers they are suddenly required to make many decisions.  If when they get to this stage they have never thought through the consequences of a decision or solved a problem on their own, they are in for a lesson.

I like to start out small and young.  Asking children at a young age what their favorite color is, food, movie, game, friend etc…  All of these questions require a child to think about their wants, desires, and at some level what is valuable to them.  These are not the ultimate values of life but they are the beginnings of determining the ultimate values.  One of the most important things to focus on as a parent during these conversations is truly seeking to understand your child’s inner life.  The more you are engaged with understanding your child’s thoughts, opinions, and values, the stronger they will hear the message, “what you think is important to me.”  If you value their opinion then they will see value in it as well.

As a child increases in age and practice it is wise for parents to begin asking their opinion in more significant ways.  What sport would you like to play? What assignment would you like to do first?  What do you think about this bible verse?  What is important to you in this?  The more opportunity they have to express their opinions about a wide variety of topics the more confident they will be in their opinions.  The more confidence they have in their own opinions the more likely they are to make decisions based on their values rather than those of their peers.

It is not possible to guarantee that our children will always make the right decision.  It is possible however to provide tons of practice and rehearsal for the moments when their values are really tested.  When the pressure is on they will rely on what is most comfortable and familiar to them.  Parents can influence what is most comfortable and familiar by engaging in thoughtful and challenging conversations.

More articles available at http://www.parentingboysraisingmen.com

The Secret of Power and Control

My wife and I are in serious trouble! Today my five year old discovered the most well kept and important secret of the parenting world.  I was hopeful that my boys would not discover this secret for several more years.  Now that the middle child has figured it out however, it will not be long before the other three catch on.

He has discovered that when it really comes down to it, I cannot MAKE him do anything.

We stopped at a local restaurant to grab dinner following his soccer game.  I was rushing home to pick up his older brother so that I could take him to his cub scout meeting.  As we left the restaurant he stopped, just outside the door.  I was walking ahead of him and looked back to see him propped up against the wall scraping his soccer cleats on the ground.  I said, “come on buddy, let’s go” He said, “No” and just stood there.  He looked at me with a knowing smirk; he saw that my hands were full, I was in a hurry, and that I had few parenting “tools” at my disposal.

Thankfully, I had gotten off work a little early today so I was in a pretty patient frame of mind.  I remained calm and began racking my brain for the best way to handle this situation.  We stood there looking at one another for nearly a minute.   It began to feel like the stand off at the OK corral, whoever moved first, was doomed to lose.  After searching for the most helpful tool in my bag for this situation, I came up empty.  I was unable to think of a logical or enforceable statement to convince him that he should move on his own.  So, I walked back to where he stood, took his arm and walked him to the car.  Eventually he decided to walk on his own, and climbed into his seat.

As I reflect on this situation I am struck by the simple truth, I CANNOT MAKE HIM DO ANYTHING.  At this point he is only five, I am bigger than he and I can take him by the arm and walk him to the car.  In ten years if he decides to take a similar approach about going to school things will be different.  I will not be able to physically move a fifteen year old as I did my five year old today.

This was a power struggle, he realized that I was in a hurry and short handed; he decided he was going to exercise his personal will.  I am reminded of how important it is for parents to admit and be OK with the fact that we cannot MAKE our children do anything.  All we can do is state what we are going to do.  We cannot control our children, instead we must explain the expectations or limit and then manage our own responses accordingly.  When the child does not meet the expectation the parent can let go of forcing him to “do” something and provide a logical consequence for the decision.  If the child meets the expectation he learns a lesson about responsibility, if the child does not meet the expectation and experiences a consequence, he learns a lesson about responsibility.  Either way the lesson is learned and the parent maintains sanity by understanding, “I don’t have to control my child, only my self.”

Over what has your child power struggled?
What are your favorite enforceable statements?
What are your “go to” phrases for enforcing limits?

I’m Sorry

I totally screwed up the other day!  It had been a long week, a long day at work, and when I arrived home things were a bit chaotic.  I lost my temper, and snapped at my oldest son.  My tone of voice was angry, the words were shorter than normal, and I am sure my facial expression was scary.  I cannot recall what pushed me over the edge, but I can see the look on his face.

            I now see that my angry response triggered an angry response in him, which only made the whole situation worse.  As I have reflected on my anger over the last few days I am reminded of something I once heard a speaker say.  He said that the most important thing he ever did as a parent was to apologize when he messed up.  I have tried to keep this advice in my mind specifically for times like these.

            A couple of times in my experience as a parent I have apologized to my children and seen the immediate calming, and healing effects of the words, “I am sorry.”  Another time that sticks out to me is a situation in which I jumped to conclusions about my son’s actions.  I walked into the house thinking I knew exactly what happened and began handing out consequences before getting the facts.  As the injustices of my uninformed decisions mounted I could sense my son puffing up with defensiveness and frustration.  His reactions got larger and the tears began to roll.

            As I came to my senses and began to learn more about the situation I realized my mistake.  I had misunderstood, over-reacted, and been wrong.  Due to the wise words of the previously mentioned speaker,  I realized my mistake, apologized to my son and immediately saw him deflate.  He calmed down, relaxed, and opened up to me about what had happened.  He could put down his defenses, as he was no longer being attacked.

            Apologizing when we make mistakes disarms a situation; it demonstrates humility, strength, and honesty.  If we as parents are willing to apologize our children will be more willing to apologize as well.   “I’m sorry” is a crucial message to send to your children.  It allows them to understand that you are not perfect, you are doing your best but make mistakes.  Saying I’m sorry also gives them permission to make mistakes.  They will learn to handle their own mistakes by following your model.

 What is your experience with apologizing to your children?

Let’s Go Help Mom

 I learned a very important lesson about marriage even before my wife and I got married.  She was living in Texas and I in Southern California.  She came to visit and meet my parents for the first time.  I was excited to show off my hometown and my parents were elated that it looked as though I might be moving out of the house at some point in the future.  My then girlfriend however, got a glimpse into how she would be treated as the future Mrs. Mark Vander Ley.

            She returned to Texas and we continued our nightly phone calls.  She gave me the news in her characteristically straightforward manner.  “If you treat me the way that you treat your mom, we will not be getting married.”  She saw the way that I treated my mom during that visit and was not impressed.  She wisely knew that a son who disrespects his mother is a son who disrespects his wife.  I am thankful that she called me out on this behavior before we got married.  By the time the wedding came around I had made some growth.  I am still working to model for my boys, the level of respect and honor that their mother deserves.

            Another lesson came when my wife and I served as mentors for a young married couple.  Like in many cases I learned much more from this relationship than the young husband I was mentoring.  One day we decided to hold each other accountable for serving our wives in unexpected ways through out the week.  This might mean emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, picking up around the house, or making breakfast.  Basically, it was getting off my “duff” and doing something without having to be asked.

            This experience softened my heart towards my wife.  The accountability of this young married man helped me to put my wife first.  He helped me to step up and lead through service.  I still struggle with selfishness in this area and have plenty of room to continue growing.  I am hopeful however that my boys will get the message of “let’s go help mom.”  I am convinced that they will learn to respect their mother, and women based on the example they see.

            I hope that dads will humble themselves and follow the command to, “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Ephesians 5:33

In what ways could you serve your spouse this week?

How to Halt the Entitled Generation: I Need Your Help

Ephesians 4:12 “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up”

My children are growing up as part of the “entitled generation.”  I have read several articles recently discussing this generation of youth as lazy, entitled, coddled, and narcissistic.  One article written by Brett Mccracken from relevantnetwork.com describes the entitled generation as,

“raised on the notion that we deserve things, that the government owes us something, that everything we want should be accessible and that somehow we are not responsible if we don’t end up quite as successful in life as we’d hoped.”

Several years ago a colleague and I were sharing with a group of parents about Shelterwood, the teen-counseling ministry that we worked for.  At the end of our presentation a parent asked us what we saw as the most troublesome problem facing teens today.  Thankfully my colleague answered the question, however his answer surprised many of the parents.  They expected to hear an answer of online pornography, drugs, texting while driving, or peer pressure.  Instead, he described a sense of entitlement as the number one problem facing teens today.

How does a parent raise children that are thankful for the smallest of blessings?  Is it possible in this day to raise children that view their purpose in life as serving others rather than accumulating possessions?  If they are willing to serve others will they do it to please God or to gain some sort of notoriety?  How can I do as Ephesians 4:12 says, “prepare God’s people for works of service.”

I witnessed an impromptu class in teaching the “entitled generation” about service during a family retreat while working at Shelterwood.  All the parents and families had come to town for the weekend.  This was our time to meet, encourage, support, and get to know the families of the teenagers that lived in our care.  We were serving them right?  After dinner one night the staff were to stick around to help clean up so that the families could leave to spend some quality time with their teenage child.  One father had a different plan.  As the families began to leave for the night he began picking up tables and chairs with the rest of us.  He didn’t say anything, he just started pitching in and offering a hand.  The class began when I witnessed his two pre-teen sons jump up behind him and mimic their father’s actions.  I thought in my mind that this could not have been the first time these boys saw their father standing up to serve others.  They must have seen him helping others over and over and over again.  They desired to be a man, and from what they saw, men were servants.

I was convicted and inspired by this lesson on preparing my kids for works of service.  I confess that many times my mind is set more on preparing my kids for college, a good job, or responsibility, rather than serving others.  I often find myself losing sight of God’s mission of service for my life.  I find myself desiring money, possessions, and notoriety.  Like the lesson I witnessed first hand has taught me, the best way to halt the entitled generation is to be a servant myself.

I have been challenged to say to my children, “come on, I need your help” when I have opportunities to serve others.  I hope that when my boys think of “manhood”, they picture a servant who is quick to pitch in, take out the trash, and stack up the tables and chairs.

Start the conversation below

In what ways can a family serve together?

How have you taught your children that serving others is important?

What are some other ways to Halt the Entitled Generation?”

Where Does it Hurt?

“Who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” Psalm 113:6-7

Before I had children I thought I knew a lot about being a parent.  I had been working with teens for years, read many parenting books, and observed (judged) parents for countless hours.  In my arrogance I thought that I was well prepared to raise the “perfect” child.

When my first child was born I was halfway through my graduate program studying marriage and family therapy.   I had so much to learn.  At this point in my life I thought it important to raise a son who did not over-react when he got hurt.  So, I set about under-reacting to my son’s needs.  I thought that if I was calm and collected and acted like nothing was wrong he would learn to respond the same way.  When he falls down he will get up and dust himself off.  When we drop him at the baby sitter he won’t shed a tear.  He will be strong and he will be independent.

What a mess!  I was parenting from my own needs rather than my son’s.  I needed a son who did not bother me, did not whine, and allowed me to stay disconnected from others.  What my son needed was a father who was attuned to his needs.  He needed a father that responded with compassion and grace.  He needed a father that said, “Where does it hurt?”

I am so thankful for the difficult and challenging lessons that followed those first nine months of parenting.  As I gained experience as a counselor and parent, the Lord was busy refining me into the father my son needed.  I learned that my parenting approach was actually starving my child of compassion, nurture, and love.  The more I closed my heart to his hurt the harder he cried out for me.  The more I said, “suck it up, boys don’t cry” the more abandoned he felt.  Paradoxically my plan to make him tough was actually making him emotionally fragile.

 I was privileged to attend a professional training as a counselor that revolutionized my approach as a parent.  I found in this training that compassion and nurture are vital to a child’s normal development.  I discovered that children who are not touched, held, or cuddled would actually die.  I learned that if a parent is attuned to their child’s needs and provides the appropriate level of nurture and compassion, their child would not have to ask for it.  This child is then free to grow, play, explore, and laugh rather than having to worry about being nurtured, loved, and protected.

It was a slow process, but I found that when I asked, “where does it hurt?” my heart began to soften and my son began to relax.  He finally knew, “my dad will protect me, I am safe from being harmed”

I strongly believe that our sons need fathers that will respond with compassion rather than dismissal.  Ignoring a child’s hurts and saying “boys don’t cry” does not make them stronger, it makes them emotionally fragile.  It is when fathers (and mothers) respond with empathy, compassion, and care that boys learn to manage their hurts and control their changing emotions.  I challenge fathers to  “stoop down to look upon your boys and girls, raise your poor son from the dust and lift his bloody knee from the ash heap.” Paraphrase Psalm 113:6-7

How do you show compassion to your child?
What valuable lessons have you learned as a parent?

How have you witnessed the harm of a “boys don’t cry” culture?

Stuff Dads Say

Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction; pay attention and gain understanding.

Proverbs 4:1

I am always a little shocked by how much my children actually hear what I say.  It is even scarier to realize how much they watch what I do.  Several years ago I had picked our boys up from school and was driving home when from the back seat I heard my oldest say the word stupid.  I quickly turned around and said,  “Hutson we do not say stupid.”   Later that same evening the boys and I ventured into the back yard to play in our sandbox.  As I dragged off the cover, designed to keep the neighbors cat from pooping in our sand, I discovered a nasty deposit.  I scooped out the poop and said under my breath, “stupid cat”.   Hutson came running over from about 15 feet away, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Dad, we do not say stupid!”  Ouch, the painful humility of realizing my own hypocrisy.  I was reminded of how powerfully the words and actions of a father impact the lives of their children.

I strongly believe that the messages fathers send, stated and unstated, have a profound impact on how their sons (and daughters) come to view the world, God, themselves, and others.  I have compiled a list of the top ten most important messages all boys need to hear from their fathers.  I believe these messages should be sent over and over again throughout a son’s life.  They are paying attention and will gain understanding.  The question is, understanding of what?  Over the next several months I will be expanding upon each point with one or more posts dedicated to each message.

The most important messages every boy needs to hear from his father

  1. No Kicking in the face
  2. Where does it hurt?
  3. Come on, I need your help
  4. Let’s go on an adventure
  5.  Oh, Let’s try that again
  6.  Let’s go help mom
  7.   How are you going to handle that?
  8.  I’m sorry
  9.   What do you think about that?
  10.  How do you ask nicely?

I have caught myself saying each one of these phrases.  Before having kids I never imagined that they would become part of my parenting vocabulary.  I am excited to share with you how they have shaped my journey as a father and how I believe they continue to shape the way my sons view the world.

What messages do you think should be added to the list?
What messages did you hear from your dad?
How do “father” messages play a role in how children view God?  

Face Time

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”  Numbers 6:24-26

My favorite part of the worship service at the church of my youth was the end.  Not because it was over, but because every single week the pastor would raise his hands and pronounce a powerful blessing over the congregation.  Most of the time he would use the words of the Aaronic benediction found in Numbers 6:24-26.  By the time I was a teenager I could recite this passage from memory.  It was after college that I began to wonder what these words meant and why they are said at the end of almost every service.

I began to study and discovered something more than I had ever expected.  God commanded Aaron to bless the Israelites using words they would all recognize from just after they had fled Egypt.  God was giving Moses instructions to bring His people to the promised land and Moses wanted reassurance that God was leading the way.  The Lord’s response to his request was “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Ex. 33:14  The phrase “My Presence” can literally be translated as “My Face”.  So, when God commanded Aaron to bless the Israelites using the words “face shine upon you” and “turn his face towards you” He was reminding His people that He was “present”.  He was saying, “you are OK my children, I am here, I will keep you safe, I am present, you do not have to worry, have peace.”

Whenever I hear or read this passage from Numbers I substitute “My Presence” for “face”.  I love the idea of the Lord’s face representing His presence.  As He turns His face towards me I sense that He is present and that we are connected in relationship.  I recently made a link between the power of the Lord’s presence or face to bring His children peace, and the power of a parent’s presence or face, to bring their child peace.

The “still face” experiment (see video above) is a demonstration of the power of presence to bring peace.  When the mother is fully engaged and responsive to the child, the child is calm, playful, and feels safe.  As the mother literally turns her face from the child, she becomes scared, confused, and upset.  I can’t help but draw the parallels between how the Lord relates to us, and how we relate to our children.  The Father promises, “My Presence” will go with you, and I will give you rest.”  I can be confident that the Father is always with me protecting, loving, and connecting.

I am struck by the importance of my being present with my children when I am home.  It is so tempting to check out after an exhausting day at work.  To prop them in front of a tv show or video game, to read the paper, surf the net, or watch the game.  It is important as parents to bless our children with our true, undivided presence.  It is important to shut out all distractions whether external or internal to focus powerfully on our children.  When we turn our faces towards them connecting our heart with theirs we have the power to bring them peace.   

The Fortress of Solitude

Several years ago I read the book and watched the movie “Into the Wild”.    It is a true story about an upper middle class boy.   After graduating from college he gave away what was left of his college fund and wandered around the United States.  He told no one where he was going and ended up starving to death in the Alaskan wilderness.  My favorite quote from the movie goes like this, “It is not as important that a man be strong, as it is that he feel strong.

Iknew a boy recently who did not feel strong.  If you looked at him you would not think it. He was a football player, confident, and bigger than most.  Despite outward appearances however he believed that he was weak.  The worst part was not that his strength was being stolen, but that he was giving it away.  A recurring theme from our conversations was how he would beat up anyone who said something bad about his mom.  He was constantly talking about how tough he was.  He listed off the number of fights he had been in and the times he had been suspended from school.  I really liked this boy but was becoming frustrated with his need to portray himself as tough and “manly”.

I began to realize that although he was strong, athletic, and likeable-he did not feel strong, athletic, or likable.  It appeared to me that he felt weak, awkward, and hated.  His fragile view of self required that he project strength and aggression.  If he were to project what he really believed, that he was weak, awkward, and hated, people might agree with him, and he could not handle that.  So, he built the most “manly” façade he could come up with.  This façade was designed to convince others and himself that he was strong and not to be messed with.

Unfortunately, it is very common for boys to build a façade of “manliness” designed to keep people from knowing who they are on the inside.  In their book, “Raising Cain”, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson call this the fortress of solitude.  This façade begins, from a very young age, to isolate boys from emotionally connected relationships.  Boys grow up to be men who can hold long conversations about what is happening in the world of sports.  However, they have a very hard time identifying what is going on inside of themselves.

I hope that parents will teach their boys what it means to be a man.  We can teach our boys that being a man may include physical strength.  We can teach our boys that being a man also includes emotional strength.  A man of emotional strength is able to look inside himself to acknowledge the good and the bad.  He is also willing to include those he trusts in this inner life.  It is this vulnerability that is a great marker of “constrained power”(meekness).

Let’s Hear it for the boys

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”  Matthew 5:5

Several months ago I attended a community training entitled “Hear our Cry: Boys in Crisis”.  It was hosted by a local mental health committee and was attended by social workers, therapists, pastors, law enforcement, and educators.   Anyone and everyone who works with boys were in that room.  We were all there to learn more about how to help the boys that we encounter in our daily work that seem lost, hurt, and destined to fall through the cracks.  Towards the beginning of the day the speaker posed a question to the audience.  He asked us to yell out adjectives that come to mind when we think of boys.  It started slowly, but things warmed up pretty quickly. People yelled out: aggressive, dirty, hyper, smelly, fidgety…  on and on it went with adjectives shared in a tone that implied “bad”.  Being a father of three boys, who at times truly are all of the things mentioned above, my heart started to boil.  Stepping out of my normally quiet self for a bit I yelled out, “AWESOME”.  I was angry with this group of people.  The very people that were supposed to offer help and support to struggling boys seemed to have a predetermined view of them as bad.  I was fearful that my son who would start school in the coming months would enter a system that views him as a trouble maker even before he walks through the door.

I have the wonderful privilege of getting paid to play games with elementary school kids on a regular basis.  I lead groups in several local elementary schools for kids who are struggling with behavior in class.  We use fun and engaging games to teach them impulse control, following directions, self-regulation, teamwork, and affect expression.  I am currently involved in 3 groups that consist of 21 kids.  Of these 21 kids 1 of them is a girl.  I am not sure why this was a surprise to me.  The majority of kids in special education are boys and according to the CDC’s website 11.2% of boys ages 3-17 are diagnosed with ADHD.  While only 5.5% of girls in the age group are given the diagnosis.

 What is it with boys?  Is there really a boy crisis going on?  Are boys bad?  Most importantly, what can be done to help our boys grow up to be men?  It is my opinion that the aggressive, dirty, hyper, smelly, and fidgety characteristics sometimes viewed as weaknesses in boys should be harnessed as strengths.  In her book, “Boys Should be Boys” Meg Meeker offers a unique definition of meekness.  The dictionary definition of meekness is “quiet, gentle, and easily imposed upon.”  Meg Meeker defines meekness as “constrained power”.  She uses the example of a horse.  The horse is a very very powerful, energy filled animal.  If the horse is left unharnessed however that power and energy cannot be used for good.  When the horse is harnessed his power and energy can be used for many positive things.  I really like this definition of meekness.  It reminds me of the meekness of Christ.  Jesus, the all-powerful God, chose to die on the cross, the powerless death meant for criminals.

So, as parents, we strive to harness the aggression, high energy, love of dirt, and constant movement of our boys.  If we can channel these traits into constructive activities, boys will learn to view them as positive parts of who they are.  They will learn to control their aggression, energy, and movements.  They will see that it is not reckless abandon that makes a man but steady self-control.

(upcoming posts will focus on how to teach impulse control, self-regulation, and affect expression)