Moments of Stillness

I was all about being still.  I could relax with the best of them.  As a teenager there was an indentation of my body permanently pressed into our couch.  When my wife and I first got married, I joked about how going on vacation with her family was like boot camp, because of the active interests they pursued.  As I reflect on the passage, “Be still and know that I am God” I get a profound sense that “chilling out” and relaxing by the pool is not exactly what God had in mind.

  I have found that although stilling my body is not hard for me, stilling my mind is quite difficult.  I would characterize myself as an over-analyzer.  My body can be still, while my mind is racing a mile a minute.  I have early memories of long sleepless nights analyzing the minutest details of interactions between teachers, friends, and family.  I analyze the slightest pitch change in my wife’s voice.  I attempt to decipher the meaning of and future repercussions of my children’s smallest behaviors.  In short, there are moments when I can drive myself crazy with the thoughts that move through my mind.

Several years ago, I was blessed to attend summer camp with a group of high school students.  The speaker that week focused on several spiritual practices for deepening relationship with Christ.  The one practice that stuck with me was the Jesus prayer.  The prayer comes out of the Eastern Orthodox tradition and involves repeating the phrase “Lord, Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  Scripturally the prayer has its roots in Luke 18:13 “but the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  I was taught to inhale on, “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God” and to exhale on, “have mercy on me a sinner.”

For a person who requires more work on stillness of mind than body this prayer has been a great help.  When I find myself ruminating over the days activities unable to sleep, I will repeat this prayer as a way to slow my mind and focus on Christ.  When I am overwhelmed by my work as a therapist, this prayer helps me to remember my purpose and be reminded that Jesus is the true healer of souls.

I love this prayer because through it I experience moments of stillness.  I am reminded again and again, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and I am a sinner.  I inhale the name of Jesus, and exhale the character of man.  Now that is a breath of fresh air!

Parenting in Community

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…” Hebrews 12:1

I recently read an article by Ross Taffell entitled “The Decline and Fall of Parental Authority”.  This article was nothing I expected it to be.  I expected the author to argue from national statistics and personal anecdotes that today’s parents were not strong enough.  I anticipated that he would describe teenagers run amok, parents providing alcohol at parties, and 7 year olds with I-phones.

I was surprised when, instead of heaping guilt on parents who were working very hard to raise their kids, he offered an old solution to the new problem of the decline of parental authority.  The author notes that arguably the most damaging thing to parental authority today is the fragmentation of society.  Taffel believes that a parent’s authority is attacked from every corner of the world.  Children are bombarded with alternative voices of authority from the online world, television, school, friends, and advertising.   Each system sells its values as the most important part of leading a “successful” life.  Friends say it is being “cool”, TV says it is having the right stuff, school says it is getting all A’s, and the Internet says it is having all the right information.  Each of these systems preys on a parent’s fear that their child will not “measure up”.

The solution offered by Taffell is to raise children in community rather than isolation.  The technology that fills our lives and was intended to connect us seems to actually separate us.  Families are so busy with activities that little time is left to socialize with neighbors and connect to one another.  Taffel says, “what most overwhelmed parents of out-of-control kids need… is a strong, vibrant community that includes other parents, parents need help and encouragement in authority building.”  I am reminded of Hebrews 12:1a “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”  I imagine a group of parent’s who “by faith” raise up their children to honor and serve the Lord.  I pray for a community of parents standing a long the edges helping to steer and direct the development of my family.

When I was growing up my parents personally knew each of my friend’s parents.  If I did something stupid they would hear about it.  The other parents helped to support and enforce the values created in my home.  Taffel challenges parents to build communities of authority in which to raise their children.  He encourages us to build partnerships with schools, to support other parents, and to be active in our neighborhoods.  I am inspired by his suggestions yet overwhelmed by the task.  To build community requires risk and sacrifice.  It requires slowing down and intentionally connecting with others.  I am hopeful that as my children grow, I will also grow in my ability to assemble a “great cloud of witnesses” to cheer them on as they run the race marked out for them.

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.   

Control Issues 2

The most important aspect to remember when offering choices to your child is that you must be comfortable with all the choices given.  As a parent, you have to be willing to follow through on your child’s choice, so offer these choices carefully.  For example, giving a three year old the choice between riding his tricycle in the driveway and riding his tricycle around the block unsupervised is not acceptable.  Once you begin to offer choices to your child, it will become second nature.  You will begin to see everything as a choice and will learn how to phrase things as opportunities for choices rather than commands.

            So, what good does offering all these choices do?  Children who have been raised with appropriate levels of control in their own life grow to be teens who are intrinsically motivated.  All the millions of choices that they have been allowed to make over their lives have taught them that they have the power and ability to make their life what they want it to be.  These children have what is referred to as an internal locus of control.  They believe that the outcomes of their actions are the function of their effort, skill, and personality.  They are confident in their abilities to succeed, and motivation for that success comes from within.  In fact, “allowing children the freedom to pursue their interests without interference is paramount for intrinsic motivation” (Mercogliano, pg 10).  However, a controlling parenting style leads towards children who have an external locus of control.  These children have been so controlled from the outside that they do not know how to make decisions without outside help.  They believe that they have very little power to make life what they want it to be.  They are waiting for someone to come along and do “it” for them, or are hoping for a miracle to make their dreams come true.  Those with an external locus feel as though they are not responsible for the outcome of their actions.

            Giving up control also allows our children to internalize their values.  Parents desire to see their children make decisions that are based on their value system.  It is sad to see a child who makes decisions based on the desires of his peer group or cultural influences.  A responsible child is one that makes right decisions because he is confident in his values and view them as more important than the applause of peers.  Internalized values are a very important part of identity development, as what we value contributes greatly to our thinking.  And when our thinking is deeply rooted in our values, our behavior usually lines up.  The positive result is an integrated identity.

Finding a healthy balance in the amount of control we give to our children is difficult, but so important.  Remember, a child with too much control is no better off than one with not enough control.  I encourage parents to start small.  Give your child control over as many things as possible while maintaining appropriate limits.  Having clear limits for your child will help to balance the temptation to over-control.  As long as the child is within the clear limits, he is free to behave and choose as he wishes.  When he wanders outside the limits, make sure he experiences a consequence that reinforces the limit.

            In summary, a gradual release of control to your child will help him to grow into a teen that believes that the outcome of his actions is a function of effort, skill, and personality.  Giving up control will also foster the internalization of a child’s values, which is a key component to the development of an integrated identity.  Over-control by parents will leave teens with a sense that they are not responsible for the outcome of their actions.  They will also be susceptible to the influence of peers and culture in regards to decisions about values and conduct.

Control Issues 1

I have many discussions with parents that center around the issue of control.  The surprising part for many of them is that I emphasize giving up control rather than maintaining control.  It seems to me that parenting is a life-long exercise in gradually giving over more and more control to our very precious children.  This process can be a very scary, or even painful, endeavor for many parents, especially when it is done either too quickly or too slowly.  Many parents wonder, “If I give up control to my child, then how will he learn what is right?” or “Won’t they end up being wild children who are continually in trouble?”

Though it is tempting for some parents to believe that gradually giving control over to their children will result in ineffective or poor behavior, the truth is that giving age-appropriate control to our children is actually in their best interest.  In reality, giving more control to your children as they mature will help develop a confident, internal moral compass from which they will make better decisions on their own.

            Let’s make the distinction between being “in control” and being “controlling.”  In his book, “In Defense of Childhood Protecting Kid’s Inner Wildness Chris Mercogliano, describes being “in control” as “establishing age appropriate limits, while at the same time supporting children’s growing sense of autonomy by allowing them to make choices and learn from their mistakes” (pg. 9).  Being “in control” is setting very clear limits for children and enforcing those limits consistently.  However, if a child is moving within those limits, he is free to be in control of his decisions and behavior.  The approach of the “in control” parent allows children to practice making choices that meet their needs or desires, but provides appropriate limitations to that freedom.   Alternatively, Mercogliano describes “controlling” as  “placing high value on obedience, shepherding children toward specific outcomes, and discouraging verbal give and take” (pg. 9).  A controlling parent is not only setting limits, but is active within those limits, making choices and decisions for a child that he could have easily made on his own.  A controlling parent who is focused “toward specified outcomes” has his own ideas for the child and is out to make them happen.  This parent does not consider the child’s desires, interests, or skills.  Instead, this parent’s focus is on meeting his or her own needs.

            The key is to gradually give age-appropriate control to our children, which is given in the form of choices.  For example, you may ask your young child, “Would you like to wear shorts or blue jeans today?” or “Would you like to drink milk or water?” or “Do you want to read books or play outside?”  All of these choices are opportunities for parents to give children control over the moments of their lives without allowing them to be in control of the household.  We have all seen the three year old who is clearly in control of the parent-child relationship.  Instead of being given choices chosen by the parent, this child is dictating the agenda for the entire household.  Giving a young child too much control is not only unhealthy, but is also harmful for future development.  On the other hand, giving age-appropriate choices to our children boosts their healthy development.

Angry Parents

 

Why does a person get angry?  What is it about a child’s behavior that can cause a parent to lose control?  Parents get angry and lose control with their children when they experience stress or anxiety above their levels of tolerance.  Typically, when parents experience this level of stress, one of their four core fears—danger, failure, loss of love, and loss of control— has been triggered by their children’s behavior.  Often, the end result of this fear is the parent’s extreme emotional response to the situation.  Learning to identify and better understand the impact of these fears in our parenting helps us learn to maintain better personal control with our children.

Danger:

The fear of their child being seriously hurt, emotionally or physically.  Parents who experience this core fear feel anxious when their child takes risks or is out of their sight.  The most common way of relieving this anxiety is to protect.  These parents have a hard time maintaining personal control when their efforts to protect are being avoided by the child.

Failure:

The fear of failing as a parent, or their child failing as an adult.  Parents who experience this core fear work hard to make their child a success and have a hard time maintaining personal control when their child’s behavior seems to work against them

Loss of love:

The fear of losing their child’s love.  Parents who experience this core fear may rely on their child for feelings of affirmation and value.  In times of trial they feel abandoned, alone, and betrayed by their child and may struggle to maintain personal control.

Loss of control:

The fear of losing control of their child or the situation.  Parents who experience this core fear see misbehavior as a sign of things to come.  They are afraid that if they don’t get things under control, their child will grow up to be a hardened criminal or worse.

We all lose our cool from time to time.  Being aware of our buttons, and what underlying fears trigger us to lose control can be very helpful.  spend some time reflecting on the last time that you lost your cool.  What was your child doing?  What were you doing?  Which one of the four core parenting fears triggered you?  Spending a few minutes in self reflection can help you to maintain control the next time your core fear is triggered.

Portions of this post are excerpts from my parenting workbook entitled “Parenting Peace”.

Read Angry Art

Read The Angry Growl

 

The Best Toy Ever!!

What is your child’s favorite toy?  Maybe it’s a video game, hot wheels car, dump truck, cardboard box or YOU.  I would guess that you are their favorite toy hands down.  If you were to have them choose between playing some sort of interactive fun game with you or any one of their toys, I think they would choose YOU.

Authors Howard Glasser and Jennifer Easley agree that parents are the most exciting playthings available for their children.  They imagine that even the most elaborate, bright colored, and well-designed toys cannot compete with the millions of different responses that parents are capable of making.  A child can press 10 buttons on a toy and the toy will make a few different sounds.  Maybe it will play some music and some different colored lights will turn on.  But a parent’s buttons if pushed in just the right manner can elicit a wonderful variety of responses full of varied emotion, volume, body language, facial expression, and vocabulary.

The difficult part for parents is that we tend to provide a more exciting and interesting response to our children when they are doing something wrong.  We use very sharp tones, and increased volume when correcting misbehavior.  We speak quickly and energetically when they are dawdling around getting ready for school.  We spend lots of time lecturing about why “such and such” was a bad choice, and why we must follow the rules.  How excited do we get when they do something desirable?  Usually our responses to the desired behaviors are much more reserved.  Maybe we give a “thank you” for putting the dish on the counter, or possibly a “way to go” when they are ready for school on time.   If they are lucky they might get a “high five” and a “way to go” for picking up their toys.

The very important question is, at what times do you provide the most energy to your child?  When are you most animated in your responses, when he is doing right or wrong?  Some parents get stuck in a rut of only providing feedback when their children are misbehaving.  But noticing when a child is behaving in a desirable manner and then responding with energy, excitement, and joy is a very powerful tool.  This tool can be used to encourage honesty, kindness, sharing, helpfulness, listening, impulse control, and many other desirable traits.

I challenge parents to intentionally spend more energy celebrating their children’s successes than disciplining mistakes.  As you begin to celebrate positive behavior your children will begin to display more of that behavior.  Children are very good at learning which buttons get the most exciting responses from their parents.  The more exciting response they get, the more they will push the button.  Be sure that your buttons are programmed for celebrating successes rather than failures.