The first thing I want to talk about today is success in the relationship between the parent and the child. We want our relationship with our children to be one of shared success. And to do that, we have to assess their abilities accurately and realistically. We want to provide things they can accomplish easily at first. That’s true, even of those who are older, too.
Let me back up to an example I heard about – the teacher that was teaching children to read. She had a little book with very few words in it. Before she passed out the books to all the kids, she put every word in that book up on the board in chalk and had an icon to go with every word. They all repeated all the words and connected the icons with them, so they knew what all those words looked like. They all understood what they meant. She read the book out loud to them first, and then passed out the books. Then they all read them together as a group. So you start out at the fundamental level and you teach them the simplest things first. You provide them opportunities to be successful.
But it’s also true of those who are older. I had an older teen come into my office some time ago. It was her first session and she was obviously anxious about it. I remember I was anxious when I went to a counselor the first time, too. (Oh, you mean, I went to a counselor? Well, yes I did. It’s not fair to see people as a counselor if you haven’t sat on the other side for awhile. And it wasn’t like I didn’t have anything to work on, so it all worked out just fine.) But she was anxious and I said, “Have you ever been to see a counselor before?” She said, “No, I haven’t.” And I said, “I imagine you’re wondering how it works and what you should do.” I had no idea how much that was true. I later found out she was very performance driven – you know, a real type A. And she said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, we have to work as a team. You have the easy job and I have the hard job. Your job is to help me understand you. And my job is to understand you. And the way you help me is to start telling me whatever you think is important first.” And she said, “I hardly know where to begin” – you know, the “deer caught in the headlights” look. I said, “It seems overwhelming, but that’s okay. We’ll get around to all of it in time, so it really doesn’t matter where you start.” She looked a bit uncomfortable still, so I said, “Would it help if I asked you a question to get started?” She said, “That would be great!” I said, “Okay, you could tell me about your home and your family, where you live and your house, and who lives in it, and all the relationships that are there, and how you fit into all of that.” See, that’s something she could do, right? She knew how to do that. So that’s where we started. She was off to the races then. She knew how to do therapy.
So we start with something easy and we build on it step by step. Then they never have to fail if we do a good job of that. First came the family story and then later came the introspection and the conclusions. That’s how we do it. We start with the simple things first. That way our kids don’t have to fail a lot.
Another thing that we can do is, when we have tasks for them to do, we can show them how to do what we want them to do. Then we can make positive comments about the job that they’ve done. And we can ask them how it felt to do well. We want to build that inner motivation and make them aware that it feels good to be proactive and to accomplish things. And, if they don’t do it correctly, instead of scolding them, we can just ask them if they want us to show them how to do it again. I mean, it’s pretty simple, isn’t it? I do that all the time with kids in my office. It’s good to do that with our kids at home, too. So we’re working as a team with them then.
So the principle for this point, then, is success helps children see themselves as whole and healthy. An unbroken string of successes works best at that. So the more successes we can build into the program – the more we make sure that each child is successful in our family – the better we’re going to be.
Do you think that really is a biblical principle? Do you think that God wants us to be successful and to feel successful? I mean, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? Just because a lot of us don’t feel that way doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want us to feel that way. He wants us to also learn other things about Him being our partner, and helpig us and all that. But that comes later in the story here.
The second thing I want to focus on is stating the positive without judging. “That’s bad. That’s okay. That’s good. That’s excellent. I’m proud of you.” Most praise is judgmental actually. So what’s bad about something positive, like “Good job?” Well, if a person is judgmental, they’re making a determination about performance, aren’t they? And who does that? Well, the judge does. And who’s the judge? Well, he’s somebody that is up above everybody else, right? So, if you want to have a contingent relationship with your child, you don’t talk about what they’ve done from a judgmental perspective. You want everything to kind of be even, as much we can.
But then we also, as parents, have to hold boundaries, don’t we? I don’t have to hold too many in my office, but, if I have a little child, I sometimes say, “If I went to your house, I would have to follow the house rules at your house. Does everybody in your family take off their shoes when they come inside? Well, if I went to your house, I’d take off my shoes, too. Right? So, when you come to see me, we’re going to follow the office rules here. The office rules are: you can do whatever you want, you can say whatever you want, you can think whatever you want, as long as nothing gets broken and nobody gets hurt. And I have to follow that rule, too.” I’m holding boundaries, but we’re all doing the same thing.
Okay, so if we don’t judge, what do we do? How do you talk positively if you’re not making a judgment? Well, we describe. I had a nine-year-old, recently, draw a picture of her family for me. And instead of saying, “Good job,” I just described in positive terms what I saw. I said, “I see that you’ve drawn a picture for your family eating together. And it’s obvious that you put a lot of effort in showing all the details and a lot of attention showing where each family member goes around your table.” And I said, “When I look at this picture, it feels like everybody has a place at the table in your family.” She looked at the picture for a few seconds, and she was kind of connecting what’s here with what just came in, and then she looked up at me with this big smile – this delighted smile. “He gets it.” I think kids know, by the tone in our voice, if we appreciate what they’ve done. But if we describe positively what we’re seeing, then they also feel understood. Very important. That’s what the relationship is all about.
I’ve talked to husbands and wives that are upset and they’re always ticked, because the other person doesn’t understand their position. We just want to be understood mostly. So, if we can help kids feel that way – like we understand them – then that deepens our relationship with them.
A middle-schooler that I saw recently – and had seen for a long time – asked me one day if I liked her hair. Now, do you remember middle school? We’re just starting to get into that age where we think everybody cares as much about our hair as we do. So she’s fiddling with her bangs, which hang down on one side of her face…. I mean, I have to give an answer here, right? And I have to tell the truth. And I have to not hurt her feelings. So I said, “Your hair is always clean and healthy looking and has a lot of natural shine.” She said, “I mean the style?” And I said, “You’re wondering if I like your bangs.” I mean, it was pretty obvious that was what the issue was, because she’d been twiddling them for the last half hour. She said, “Yes.” I’ve got to tell the truth. I said, “You know, I’ve always liked bangs. And the best part of your face is your beautiful eyes and I like to see as much of those as I can. So when I see your eyes out from under your bangs, I really like that.” I don’t like that fact that they cover one of her eyes. It’s a little emo, but I got the point across and she was smiling. So that’s a good thing, isn’t it?
So the principle there is success comes from describing rather than evaluating. When we deal with success, we want to describe.
The next one has to do with signs of care. You know, children need to learn how to receive love and how to give love.
I have one girl that I’ve seen for a long time, as well – another one. And she asks me, when she has to miss a session, if it hurts my feelings. I’m thinking, “What is that about?” Well, she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings. So there’s a relationship that’s been built up there. I tell her that I always love it when she comes to see me, but I know that when she misses, it is usually for a good reason. Sometimes she has missed because she has opportunities to go on vacation or camping, and I tell her, “It always makes me feel good to know you are off having a good time somewhere with your family.” I tell her that I always like to see her when she comes back the next session. Now her mother tells me that she gets really upset if she has to miss. She’s the one that sent me a Fathers’ Day email this past year and also gave me a Christmas card.
For a child to take the initiative to do things like that, it really is meaningful – that she’s feeling a real connection with me and she is taking the initiative to learn how to express that. And that’s really healthy. That’s really good. That’s what we’ve been working for. In a world of texting, a real card represents a real thoughtful effort, because you have to go buy it, then you have to sign it, and address it. It means affection and love. So we always try to acknowledge and show appreciation for efforts, no matter how small. Every week before she leaves, she gives me a little hug and I always hug her back. If she’s given me a card or something, I always thank her for that and acknowledge how thoughtful that it is and how caring. And I tell her how much I appreciate her love and care.
There are a number of children that I’ve been working with for awhile that are starting to build that kind of connection. Some of them didn’t have the capability for that when we first began, so that’s really rewarding to me to see that. So we encourage the expression of love. It’s so heartwarming to see them grow into the ability to do that. I know that that experience is going to transfer to others later – to parents, to siblings, to friends. And, eventually, if they have parents who are faithful, that will transfer to God. Kids learn how, in a very concrete way, to love. But, then, as they get older and they develop formal operational thinking – they become more abstract – that gets transferred over to God. God, as a Father, is somebody that loves us and that we can love.
I was thinking about how that happens, by the way, with this child and others. It happens through hours of reflecting back what I get from her so that she knows she’s understood, and showing interest in her. There have been a few times when there have been family crises and I expressed concern and care for her. It has come from comforting her when she has been upset, and helping her how to figure out how to solve problems, and being non-judgmental about the choices that she makes, and the success she has, and pretty much everything, and in just taking care of her. So this child is responding and she is wanting to take care of me. She doesn’t want to hurt my feelings. Right? And she wants me to feel good on Fathers’ Day, because she knows that my kids have all grown up and she doesn’t have a father. So that’s something that she can do to feel daughterly. Right?
So the principle there is, that when children express care, it’s a sign of confidence in their ability to connect. She’s sure that she’s not going to be rejected in those offers.
The next one is to focus on existing successes. We build on what they can already do. Skill and interest go together. So we try to find out what they’re interested in. I try to find out what all my kids are interested in and I try to join them in it.
I have a fourteen-year-old boy, who…. I’m sure he can throw a football as hard as a high school kid. He brought his NFL football the other day and was quite surprised to find out that a chubby-old-grandpa-like-me could catch anything he could throw. He was very impressed. So, we throw the football with somebody. We listen to music with another. We get interested in the drawings of other children. We just go with the interest as it is presented, and become very curious to find out what those interests are, and go with that, because we know that success is going to follow the interest. We don’t try to make them like what I like. We try to go with what they’re gifted in.
So the principle there is that past success is a stepping stone to future success. You build on that. You find out what a kid is good at and you’re probably looking at some sort of gift there that, maybe, God has given. So we go with those.
We also watch for growth. This is the next point.
I have a child who is severly emotionally disabled – rages, can’t focus, She receives lots of negative feedback from everybody. She’s trying to do things with me to connect, but she just can’t hold it together long enough to do that. She wanted to play Sorry the other day, which is a game that, once you learn the rules, it only matters what cards you get. It’s not about strategy or anything. She’s smart enough to know all the rules and how to use them to her advantage. But, when she thinks she’s going to lose, she wipes the board clean. She has such a fragile sense of self. Or, if we’re playing cards – she likes to play Uno! – she just hammers her cards down on the deck and mixes them all up. I’ve been working with her on enjoying playing together and not needing to win. So, after months of storming out after losing or gloating after winning, she finally lost and didn’t pitch a fit. So I just reached across the table and offered a “high five,” which she took and, amazingly, she said, “Good job.” So I said, “I won the game, but you won something that’s better! How did you do that?” Of course, she didn’t know, but she’ll think about it. And, if we can engineer enough of those kinds of situations, then she’ll become more and more gracious as she learns that it is really not about the game. It’s about us having fun together.
So when children are shattered or discouraged, you just look for the tiniest steps forward – the tiniest little amounts of growth – and you try to build on those.
The next one is about recording the relationship. What am I talking about there? We try to keep a record of efforts that are made. We keep pictures. We keep momentos. We keep projects. We keep cards.
I see a boy that I’ve seen for years – another one of those. When he came, he did not know how to play. His environment was so bleak. He was really dull. He was just a reflection of that environment – no opportunities, no stimulation. I was talking with him the other day about our first meeting and what he remembered of it. He said, “I was shy.” And I said, “And look at you now! You come in here and we whack each other with pillows until we laugh our heads off, and then we play basketball. We have so much fun. You’ve learned how to have fun and you turned me into a friend.” See, you keep rehearsing the growth that you see. Kids don’t see those things. They don’t think about that. So when you point it out to them, it’s incredibly encouraging.
I’m using my phone more and more to take pictures of them. And sometimes I take pictures of them with me. Then we look back on those later and we kind of relive the growth of the relationship. That all seems to be very helpful to them.
So the principle there – I already stated it – is that kids don’t see growth as readily as we do, so it helps them when we can point out things – where they’ve made progress.
The next point I wanted to bring up is called flexible expectations. We should define terms here. A task is to be done. Expectations are when, where, how and what that go along with the task. It is very helpful for children to be able to help. We have things that we need to get done. There are tasks. So it helps them to also let them figure out how, where, when and what, with as much flexibility as we can. “I need you to make your bed, but you have from now until tonight to do that,” or whatever – whatever needs to be done. But let them decide more of the details about how to do those things.
“We need to get to know each other,” I remember saying to one of my clients. “So how could we do that?” There is this long pause while he doesn’t know what to do. Then I said, “Is there something you could bring in here that would help me get to know you better?” So I’m offering a suggestion about what might come into the room. He doesn’t understand what I mean, I don’t think. So I say, “You know, like pictures, or your music, or drawings. What else can we think of?” Well, he brought his fencing equipment, and he brought his guitar and played songs for me, and he brought his CD player and played a lot of his favorite music. We just had a high old time. And, somehow, the tantrums that he was having at home just gradually kind of went away.
I had another one, who was younger…. He was the smallest boy in his class and he stuttered. Nobody could understand him. I listened to him talk for eight months and I never, really, could understand everything he said. So, it’s incredibly frustrating. He got picked on a lot. His solution to that was to, periodically, take a chair and throw it clear across the classroom – not appropriate behavior. So, “What can we do to make it fun in here? Show me what you can do.” This kid needs to have a strengthened sense of himself. So he discovered once that, when he turned the lights off in my windowless office, that some of my toys glowed in the dark. So the next week he brought all of his glow-in-the-dark clothes, toys, everything. We played with them in the dark. Then he discovered the candles. So we lit those. And we had more light as he came out of the dark, so to speak. Then he started stacking my furniture up into pyramids and climbing up on them. It was all with the idea and the proviso that I was going to stop him if I thought he might get hurt – that I would hold him if I thought it was risky. So, he couldn’t even play with toys effectively when he first came in, and by the end, he was piling the stuff up in my office so high he could touch the ceiling. I remember him walking down the long hall after his last session with his father. He just kind of swaggered down the way like “I’m the king of the world.” All of his episodes had stopped at school. All of his misbehaviors had stopped at home. He felt better. He knew what to do now. He’d done some things that took a lot of courage in my office. It took some concern from me, too, because I let him take a few risks, because I knew that is what he needed to do.
The next one – realistic expectations. We have to know what our kids can realistically accomplish. A boy told me once that his parents made him do so much house cleaning that he felt like a house slave. He was fifteen. He had a little sister who was ten. She didn’t have to do any chores. He had to clean all three bathrooms, sweep and mop the kitchen, take out the trash, wash the dishes, feed the dog and vacuum the house every day. He was also responsible for mowing the lawn and weeding the yard on a weekly basis. I asked him what his parents did. He said, “They cook sometimes, but sometimes we eat cereal for dinner.” So he was really angry. And his parents wanted him to get over being such a pain.
On the other side of that, there are some kids that do nothing. And they’re usually angry, too. They expect more to be done for them, because they’re not connected to the reality of life and what it takes to live. They don’t appreciate what’s done for them. So we need to have age-appropriate tasks and expectations of our children.
I know another man who has a huge set of problems himself. He has kids that are twelve, ten and five – no wife. He washes their clothes and they put them away. He cooks; they clean up. They wash dishes, and sweep the floor, and clean the counters, and put the dishes away altogether. The little five-year-old does what she can do and the boys do what they can do. Dad vacuums. They pick up their rooms so he can do that. As the younger ones get older, they can start helping out more. He was explaining how that was going to work. The olders ones – pretty soon – they’ll start learning about washing clothes. Everybody works as a team – nobody too upset about that – some occasional resistance, but working on it.
That’s the principle. We need to have realistic expectations of what our kids can do and then expect of them.
Is this the last one? I believe it is. Modeling.
I was telling you about the boy that likes to throw the football. Well, I could catch what he could throw, but I couldn’t throw the football back. I could, but I hurt myself doing it – just getting too old for that. But the next week he wanted to play again. So I told him that I’d hurt myself last week and I couldn’t go out with him today. He got a bit huffy about it. He’d really been looking foward to it and he was disappointed. I said, “You’re disappointed and so am I. I had fun last week, but we’re all responsible to take care of ourselves, and this is me taking care of me. I don’t want to hurt my shoulder anymore. So, given that you’re disappointed and that I can’t play football with you today, what can you do to take care of that disappointment right now?” He said, “We could go for a walk down by the ditch.” So, “Yes we can. And I’d love to do that with you.” And that’s what we did. So I modeled taking care of myself and then I just put it back to him to take care of himself, too. His disappointment is his problem, not mine. So he took care of it.
So that was a confrontation, wasn’t it – a little bit? So we model how to confront people – not angry, but just stood up for myself and being open about feelings.
There was a young girl telling me, recently, about an abusive boyfriend she had – college-aged person – really angry. I said, “When I hear your story and see all those angry tears, I can just feel the anger in the room. I’m tensing up from it, it’s so palpable.” That helps her to know that I’m really on the same page with her. She’s depressed and has missed some sessions. I said, “So this is very hard work for you, especially while you’re depressed, but, as you told me earlier, there’s no other way to start feeling better except to go through the feelings. So I really hope you can be strong enough to come back to your sessions. Your story has really touched me and I’m really pulling for you. I know what to do to help you and I know you can feel better, but before that can happen, you have to come here on time every week when your appointment is scheduled. You can’t do the work, if you’re not here to do the work. So what can I do to help you accomplish that?” Do you know what she said? She said, “You’re already doing your part. I just need to do mine.”
So children learn more from watching us than they doing listening to us. That’s the principle. We model what we want them to be.
All right. I said at the beginning these are spiritual principles. Is that really true? How are they spiritual principles? One of the teachers of the law – I think it’s Mark 12, verse 28 – you can check and see if that’s right.
Mk. 12:28 – One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating, it says, and noticing that Jesus had given a good answer, said, “Teacher, of all the commandments, which is the most important.” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” “Well said,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is One and there is no other but Him, and to love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And Jesus, when he had answered wisely, said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
So, if you go back and look at all these principles, I’m sure that if you would think about somebody applying them with you – even now, as an adult – you would appreciate it, wouldn’t you? So that’s what we ought to do with others, then, isn’t it? We should treat others the way we would like to be treated. They are simply a way to show love and respect to somebody else. It’s especially important with our children in their formative years. More important than all the physical expression of religion is that of loving God and loving others – our children, included.