Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Power of Encouragement, Part 3

I've read or heard the story many times and I believe it's true. It seems that a little boy went to a Vacation Bible School at a church near his home and on returning, tearfully recounted to his mother what a terrible experience it had been. Some of the kids saw that his ears were outsized for his small head and began to make fun of him, calling him, Ozzie the Rabbit, over and over again.

The mother listened to her son pour out his anguished heart and then said, "You know, you do sort of look like a rabbit. That's a good nickname for you." So, the boy's own mother picked up where the bullies had left off in tearing down his self-esteem.

Can you imagine how crushed that little fellow must have felt that day? Now imagine the burden on his psyche of year-after-bruising year of being subjected to those kinds of emotional assaults by his own mother.

Ozzie grew, not surprisingly, to become a misfit. He succeeded at nothing in his life. His wife regularly berated him, just as his mother had.

Perhaps it was to prove to the world that he could accomplish something, even if what he accomplished was a horrific crime, that Ozzie---Lee Harvey Oswald---took a high-powered rifle to the sixth-floor of the Texas Book Depository on November 22, 1963, to shoot and kill President John Kennedy. Within days, Oswald's short and pathetic life would be brought to an end when an emotionally unstable nightclub owner, Jack Ruby, shot him.

Nothing can justify Oswald's crime, of course. But a pathologically discouraging mother may go a long way toward explaining why he killed our President.

Martin Luther, the sixteenth century church reformer, was fond of saying that there is no higher responsibility in the world than that belonging to a parent. Nobody---not kings, presidents, star athletes, or pop stars---has as great an impact on the life of a child than does a mother or a father.

And among the most important parental responsibilities is that of being an encourager for our kids. Speaking to a decidedly patriarchal society in which fathers ruled families like dictators govern police states, the first-century preacher and evangelist Paul gave this advice to dads, conveying the Christian perspective:
Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart. (Colossians 3:21)
My wife and I have been blessed with two great kids, now aged 23 and 20. We certainly have made our mistakes as parents. But from the time our children were small, we tried to make our home an oasis of stability, love, acceptance, and faith in a sometimes turbulent and psyche-bashing world. We hoped and prayed that we could give encouragement to our kids.

Here are a few of the informal principles that we tried to keep in mind as our kids were growing up:

(1) Our children are only on loan to us. They are not our possessions. God gives children to we parents and charges us with two key responsibilities:
  • to prepare them for independent adult livng and
  • to introduce them to the God Who loves them and wants what's best for them (even more than we do as parents).
(2) It's okay to say, "No" to our kids. But we should do it for the right reasons. I once read the advice of a child psychologist who said that if parents aren't telling their kids, "No" about seventy-five per cent of the time, they're doing a disservice to the children. I don't know about the percentage. But the advice rings true to me. Too many parents say, "Yes" to their kids' whims and demands because they feel so guilty about spending so little time with the children. They try to fill the gaps and holes in their relationships with money and stuff.

Furthermore, kids who are told "Yes" all the time have an unrealistic understanding of the world. Let's face it, life can be difficult. As adults, we run into disappointments and difficulties. The world tells us, "No." It's good for kids to know this and to be prepared for it.

On the other hand, parents often tell their kids, "No" for illegitimate reasons. Moms tell their children that they can't participate in athletics or go to the mall with friends because she doesn't want to make the effort of carting the kids back and forth. Dads keep eyes glued on sporting events they don't even care about, rather than saying, "Yes" to games of catch.

(3) Be involved with your kids' education; see their teachers as teammates. I know a number of people who are involved in education professionally. To a person they tell me, "It's usually the parents who don't need to be there who come to the open houses and parent-teacher conferences." The parents who need to be there don't take the time to show up for these events or to try setting up separate meetings with their kids' teachers if necessary. These are also the same parents who don't make sure the kids are doing their home work and often, have no idea where their children might be from 3:00 to 6:00 P.M. on school days. (This is also why I'm a huge supporter of the Boys and Girls Clubs.)

(4) I first heard psychologist James Dobson say it: The way parents spell love is T-I-M-E. When people talk about spending "quality time" with their children, it's just responsibility-dodging rhetoric. Any parent of an adolescent knows that the first four or five times you ask a teen how their day was, you'll get answers like non-committal shrugs, or "Okay," or "It was alright." It's only after you spend some time with a youngster, TV turned off, that they start to open up. Spending sufficient time with our kids is what creates the quality in our relationships with them.

(5) Remember that unconditional acceptance and clear, consistently-enforced limits are two sides of a single coin. That coin is love and nothing so encourages a child than a parent's love.

(6) Pray for your child each day. This is the most important one of all. Ask God to watch over your kids because God can accomplish things in your child's life that you might not even think of. I've seen that time and again.

On the days my wife told me that she was expecting both of our children, I began to pray for them daily, an unbroken habit to this day. All these years, I've even prayed regularly that God would help them to have and be faithful Christian spouses. In August, our daughter returned from an eight-month internship at Walt Disney World and told us that she had met her Prince Charming. I can tell you that her fiance is just what I was praying for all these years...a made-to-order husband for our girl, surely sent by God. Their wedding next Summer will be a tremendous celebration of how God blesses when we parents are humble enough to admit that we don't have all the answers and that we need God!

Now, let's be clear. Each of these principles have been our ideals as parents. My wife did a better job of conforming to them than I did. But I believe that I can report that they worked for us. I believe that they'll work for all parents.

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