Posts tagged parenting

Guiding kids to maturity

As I read through Scripture, there are some passages that just grab my attention and make me think. Often those passages involve lists. There are probably dozens of these in the New Testament alone, and I’m sure you’ll recognize a few, like

guiding kidsI guess it’s a guy thing. We like action, and there’s something about a list that encourages action, that breaks down a project into more manageable tasks. Some of those list passages offer a set of filters for working through a situation. Like in I Thessalonians 5:14 (NASB):

“And we urge you, brothers,
admonish the unruly,
encourage the fainthearted,
help the weak,
be patient with everyone.”

That list has always intrigued me. I had always assumed it gave instruction on dealing with difficult people, but until recently I never really dug into it. So I decided to devote several of my morning quiet times to the passage, delving into the meaning of the words, understanding the four challenges within the larger context of the passage and meditating on what the verse looks like applied in my own life.

The big picture

Right off, I saw that the four-item list was actually three specific challenges and one overarching one. The Apostle Paul points out that there are three different types of behaviors you can expect to encounter when you’re dealing with people, and how you can properly respond to them when they come up. As I studied, I was sure that understanding the passage would help me recognize situations where I could put the principles to use as I dealt with people throughout the day. But where would they show up, and how would I know it when they did?

Eventually it hit me square in the face. I’ve actually been encountering the situations and dealing with them almost every day for years … in my own home. The reason I’d missed the wisdom of this verse is because it’s listed in reverse order of how I had learned it as a dad.

My wife Ellie and I have raised seven children to adolescence and beyond.  When our first was born, I was struck by how helpless he was. He was dependent on us for everything. As he grew and acquired skills and experience, I had to encourage him that he was able to do more than he realized he could. He just needed to apply what he’d learned to the life situations he was encountering.

And as he reached the teen years and started choosing his own way in the world, I had to constantly convince him that there’s a big difference between learning and knowledge, between facts and experience. And I had to admonish him that life was not just about him, but just as much about using what he’s learned in order to relate to those around him.

As each of our seven children grew in wisdom and stature, their personalities may have been different, but the principles were always the same. They needed to learn the basics, apply them to their own lives, then learn to use them in their dealings with others. And they needed someone along the way to help them navigate that path to maturity.

Epiphany! I had been doing I Thessalonians 5:14 in the everyday process of being a father; I just didn’t realize it. That understanding and experience made the whole verse and passage come alive.

Help the weak

The Greek word for weak means lacking the strength due to immaturity or inability. Whether they’re newborn babies, brand new coworkers or new believers, people come into situations where they know absolutely nothing. They’ll be confused. They’ll make mistakes. You could chide them or tell them to keep trying, but their greatest need is for someone to teach them … patiently.

The Greek word for help doesn’t just refer to using your ability to meet someone’s weakness. It implies that you put aside your own interests for theirs. As I was holding my first granddaughter the other day, I reminded myself that she couldn’t do anything for herself, including communicate what she needed. When she wailed, I had to work extra hard to understand her need, then meet it the best I could. That meant putting up with the crying and fussiness, because it wasn’t about me, but about her.

It’s exactly what Jesus did for me. “For while we were still helpless (weak), at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5).  As He put aside His desires for a helpless sinner, I need to do the same for the weak in my life.

Encourage the fainthearted

The heart is the seat of the soul. The French word for heart is where we get our word “courage.”  Those who are fainthearted are dealing with a heart that’s too small for the task.

With seven kids, you can imagine that their personalities are quite different. For some of ours, faintheartedness looked like despondency. To others, it looked like impatience, or maybe even frustration. Whether it was because they were unsure of themselves or unsure of the situation facing them, they needed someone there to bolster their hearts—to en-courage them. They needed someone to believe in them, to say, “You can do it.” And they needed to know that I would be there with them on the other side to say “I knew you could!”

But encouraging is not just being a cheerleader. It’s coming alongside to give wisdom, to help the person understand the reason for the faintheartedness and to do the right things at the right time. Again, like with the weak, this requires you to put away self for the sake of others.

If there was any question that this passage directly applied to fatherhood, it was put to rest as I read what Paul had said to the Thessalonians just a few chapters before.

“Just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12). READ MORE »

8 tools for stepdads

Anyone who has been a father and then a stepfather knows that they aren’t the same.  While many aspects of these two roles are similar, it is the unique ones that lead to disillusionment.  As one stepfather said, “I’ve studied fathering with my men’s group many times.  But nothing has prepared me for being a stepfather.  With my own kids I have a natural leadership authority that allows me to teach them and be directive.  With my stepchildren I constantly feel like I’m one step behind, like I have to establish myself each time I engage them.”

Stepfathering can be challenging.  Perhaps that’s why many stepfathers disconnect from their stepchildren emotionally and withdraw from daily responsibilities. The unmapped territory seems to have many land minds and it’s easier to just retreat than to engage the “enemy.”  But stepfathers can have profound and important leadership roles with stepchildren.  Like Joseph, who wasn’t Jesus’ biological parent, stepfathers can offer guidance, love, and encouragement to the children under their care.

All stepparents need to understand the emotional condition of their stepchildren.  For example, being aware of the child’s emotional wounds and hurts from past losses is vital to coping with the sometimes angry or oppositional attitudes of children in stepfamilies.  To learn more about this dynamic, read this series of articles on Smart Stepparenting.

It is also very important for stepfathers to recognize that gaining respect and leadership from stepchildren is a process; you earn the right to lead by developing trust and connection with stepchildren. You must be willing, for example, to enter the child’s life as an “outsider” who slowly finds acceptance, at the child’s pace.

For many men it is very disturbing to realize that their stepchildren get to determine the pace at which they find acceptance within the family.  And it’s true — you don’t get to control your parental status — the children do.  They will open their hearts to you when they are ready.  Until then, you must cope with feeling out-of-control and find ways to work within the system as it is.  Here are some tools that might help.

1. Initially, provide indirect leadership

There are two kinds of influence (or power) in relationships: 1) positional power and 2) relational power.  Initially, as a stepfather, you have positional power because you are an adult in the house who is married to the children’s mother.  Much like a teacher at school, you have positional power.  As your relationship with the children grows, often over a period of years, you gain relational power because they now care about you personally.  Your opinions matter more, your validation is sought after, and your warm embrace feels safe.

In the beginning, when limited to positional power, effective stepfathers provide indirect leadership in their homes by leading through their wives who hold a great deal of relational power with the children. Work with her behind the scenes to establish boundaries, expectations, and the values that will govern your home.  While she might be the one to communicate the values and hand down discipline, you can still be very responsible to set a godly tone for the family.

2. Express your commitment to your stepchildren’s mother

Keep in mind that early on this may not be considered positive by your stepchildren.  In fact, they may be threatened by it. Children who hold a strong fantasy that their parents will reconcile can find your commitment a barrier to life as they would have it.

Additionally, mom’s remarriage (whether following a death or divorce) is often perceived as another loss to children, not a gain (as you see it).  Be patient with their adjustment to your marriage, but communicate your commitment to the permanency of the marriage nevertheless.

3. Communicate your role

It’s important to verbalize your understanding of your role.  Children need to hear that you know that you’re not their dad and won’t try to take his place.  Communicating that same understanding to their father is also very helpful to him; hopefully this will help him to not fear your involvement with his kids. As his fear decreases, his cooperative spirit about your presence may increase.

Finally, tell your stepkids that you are looking forward to your growing relationship and that you know how awkward that can be for the child.  Let them know that if they feel stuck between you and their dad, they can make you aware of it and it won’t hurt your feelings.

4. Be a spiritual leader

Many stepfathers discover that sharing faith-matters is, in addition to spiritual training for the child, a good way to connect emotionally.  Processing the moral content of a TV program or “thinking out loud” about your decision not to spend money on a bigger fishing boat helps children see your character and learn important spiritual values at the same time.  Show them you are a person worthy of respect and they’ll eventually give you respect.

5. Be approachable

As a therapist, I always know I’m going to have a tough time helping a family when the stepfather is defensive and easily hurt by the typical reactions of stepchildren.  Part of being approachable and accessible to stepchildren is knowing that not everything is about you.  In fact, most of a kid’s negative reactions to stepparents are really about the child’s losses (stepparents just happen to be the easy target for child’s heartache).

Until you have worked through the struggles of building a relationship, most of what a kid throws at you is a test of your character.  Show yourself not easily offended and able to deal with their emotional ups and downs.  This will make it more likely that they see you as someone they can trust.

6. Show appreciation

If you want to win someone’s heart, give them a thousand compliments (even when they aren’t asking for it).  Showing appreciation is the quickest way to build someone up and help them to feel comfortable in your presence.  By contrast, be cautious with criticism.  Words of affirmation go a long way to engendering safety and closeness.

7. Spend time together

Find time to be with your stepchildren, but do so with wisdom.  If a child does not welcome your presence, join his life at a distance.  This means taking them to their soccer game and cheering from the sidelines, but not being too much of a coach.  It also means knowing what’s important to him and gently inquiring with interest: “You studied for three hours last night for that science exam.  How did it go?”  “I know you’ve got a big date this Friday.  I noticed a concert in the paper today that you might consider attending.  I think she’d like this, but it’s your call whether you go.”

Also, if you say you’re going to be somewhere, be there.  Don’t disappoint a child who is deciding whether to let you into their heart.

As your relationship grows, you can spend one-on-one time with the child, go on special retreats together, and serve side-by-side in your church’s summer work camp.  Focused time will deepen the trust and emotional bond in your relationship.

8. Manage your stress and anger

Children are quick to forgive biological parents when they make mistakes (and we all do).  But they aren’t as forgiving of stepparents.  When stress and conflict arise (and they will!) make sure you manage yourself well.

The child’s assessment of your character won’t include how they contributed to the conflict, even if they intentionally “pushed you.”  All they will see is an angry person.  Keep in mind that one task for children is to determine whether loving their stepfather is worth the risk.  Give them every reason to believe it is.

This, of course, does not mean that you can’t ever get angry or stressed.  But it does mean that you manage your emotions and not overreact toward the child or her mother.  Communicate through your actions that it is safe for the child to be vulnerable around you and you’ll notice her softening with time.

The role of dads in an over-mothering culture

What do cannonballs, headstands, and skateboarding have in common?

Just Move StampsThey’re too dangerous for postage stamps.

News came late last week that the cartoon stamps created to promote Michelle Obama’s Just Move campaign for kids will be destroyed because they portray unsafe activities. The issue? The skateboarder didn’t have kneepads, the headstander didn’t have a helmet, and the swimmer was, well, doing a cannonball. The complaint fails to mention the soccer player without shin guards and the baseball player without a batting helmet, but hey, who’s keeping track?

Apparently, some on the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition feels the stamps send an unsafe message to kids, and that was enough to nix the stamps.

Thinking back to when I was growing up, I can’t remember a single kid in my neighborhood who had a bike helmet or wore kneepads while skating or skateboarding. That was about the time Sesame Street first debuted, and I remember thinking it was a bit overprotective. Today, boxed DVD sets of those early episodes of the children’s show come with a parental warning label: “For adults only. May not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” Why? Kids bike without helmets, jump on old box springs, and run through construction sites. Horrors!

Our culture has been on a slow, cautious path down the yellow-brick road to the mythical land of safety nirvana.  Sure, it’s important to teach our kids to be safe. But it seems we’ve reached a point in some corners of our culture where anything that might lead a child to do something that might get them hurt is off limits. Like a New York school district that recently banned the use of all balls, cartwheels, and games of tag during recess. These kind of policies have moved well beyond safety to fear.  They remind us how far we’ve drifted these last few decades.  We’re being smothered by a sort of “over-mommying” of children.

The role of a mother in the life of a child can’t be overestimated. But today, the role of a father too-often is. While a mother offers protection, warmth, and acceptance, there are things a child needs from his or her father that she certainly won’t be getting from our culture.

Dad Tossing Child 3 ViewsThe role of dads in an over-mothering culture.

Most of my seven children are grown. But thinking back to their younger years, I don’t know which they enjoyed more — nestling into mom’s lap for a book, or having dad toss them into the air. Ellie and I have made different contributions to our children’s journey to adulthood. To grow into healthy adults, kids need a balance of comfort and adventure, security and challenge, mom-fun and dad-fun.

It’s not like dads don’t care about safety or moms don’t care about adventure. We just usually find ourselves at different points on the continuum. I remember when our oldest son was about nine, and his sense of accomplishment as he called from 20-feet up in our pecan tree.  His mom told him he was too high and that he needed to come down. My take: “If you grab that branch just above your head you can get to that fork in the tree.” Truthfully, both Ellie AND I were thinking safety. But while she was thinking about the danger of falling, I was thinking of how to make climbing safer —how to direct that innate desire in most boys to climb, jump, and do physical things.

Risk taking and adventure are as natural a part of a man’s makeup as security and nurture are  part of a woman’s. But everyone — male or female — has a balance of both, and children need the perspectives provided by both mom and dad.

As parents, we reflect the nature of God to our children because, in the beginning, God created both man and woman in His image. Neither mom nor dad reflects it perfectly, but Scripture reminds us of the unique ways our individual nature reflects God:

  • God comforts his people like a mother comforts her child (Isaiah 66:13)
  • Like a woman would never forget her nursing child, God will not forget his children (Isaiah 49:15)
  • Jesus longed for the people of Jerusalem, like a mother hen longs to gather her chicks under her wings (Luke 13:34)
  • The Angel of the Lord (Christ) came to a cowering Gideon and told him to form an army to defeat the marauding Midianites (Judges 6-7)
  • He sent an angel to tell Mary that she would leave her childhood behind to be the mother of the Messiah (Luke 1:26-37)
  • God wouldn’t accept any of Moses excuses when He told him to return to Egypt to demand that Pharoah release the Israelites (Exodus 3-4).

We all need the comforting of a God who cares about our needs, as well as the challenge from the same God who sees the bigger vision outside ourselves. In a culture that seems determined to turn the world into a nice comfy lap, we as fathers need to be that balance for our children, challenging them to see the adventure that lies in that big ole scary world, and how to balance it with reasonable safety.

How does this play out in your home? How have you tried to help your children safely reach beyond their boundaries on their way to adulthood?

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