Right now, I’m in my home office with the volume on my Beats headphones at an above average level. And I can still hear two of my three kids crying. These are not “I’m a touch uncomfortable” cries. These are “my arm is about to fall off” cries. Except there’s nothing wrong with anyone’s arm. One kid probably grabbed a lego from another.
Parenting is the only thing that makes me laugh, cry and want to throw something at the same time.
Why is it so freaking hard? Because kids are complex and don’t come with solution manuals. Thousands of so-called manuals exist. But if you hear an “expert” say her parenting strategy is fool-proof, you should run quickly.
There’s no such strategy. I’m not against parenting guides. But as statistician George Box once said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Some have useful info. But the moment you put your hope in a guide, you get that child. You know the one. He conforms to no one and is not impressed with your little guide.
Parenting is painfully uncertain. And underneath the uncertainty is the sobering realization that your kids’ understanding of love, connection, worthiness, even their image of God will be determined by you. It’s true. And it’s terrifying.
Psychologists say most children develop their personality by the ripe age of 7. That means little Tommy’s temperament, habits, responses and perceptions – the tools he uses to navigate life – are largely developed before he can color inside the lines.
Can I be excused? I need to go laugh, cry and throw something.
The future of your kids isn’t all on you though. Once the eagle leaves the nest, he’s responsible for his own flying. Every healthy, thriving adult knows this. You can go on blaming your parents forever – and I don’t doubt some have every right to do so. Or you can own your choices and get on with making something of your life.
Thus, we have the great parenting paradox. As a parent, your words and actions shape the future of your kids. At the same time, you have little control over their decisions once they leave the nest.
What ever shall we do with this paradox? Allow uncertainty to throw us hither and thither until we lose our minds? Nay. This is an opportunity, a challenge. And nary a parent can afford to see it any other way.
I have now exhausted my old English references.
So, where should we start? Good question. How about here, by changing the messages our children hear. We make statements almost daily that shape our kids. Some of these statements are helpful. Others are hurtful. By re-examining the messages our kids hear, we reshape how they understand love and connection.
Here are 7 statements we need to stop telling our kids.
1. “You are ______…”
You are lazy. You are a liar. You are irresponsible. These are identity statements that become unhealthy narratives as your kids mature. They become subconscious reminders that chip away at their self-worth.
“You are telling a lie” and “You are a liar” is the difference between guilt and shame. It’s the difference between a growth and a fixed mindset. I’m convinced adults who think themselves unlovable were once kids in a shame-based, fixed-mindset culture.
As parents, we must be careful not to equate behaviors with identity.
As parents, we must be careful not to equate behaviors with identity. What you DO is not who you ARE, and our language should speak this.
2. “You are not doing that right.”
Every morning, my two oldest kids make their bed. They know we aren’t leaving the house until it’s done. Some days, they do a good job. Other days they basically reposition their pillow. And every day, I’m tempted to come behind them and do it the “right way.”
If I’m being honest, sometimes I don’t ask my kids to help me with stuff because I know they won’t do it right.
What’s the use? They won’t do it right. I will have to come behind them, meaning more time and energy.
Well, I discourage their independence. And I send the message that their way isn’t good enough, which undoubtedly breeds perfectionism.
3. “Because I said so.”
“Because I said so” is a tired, ineffective response to a child’s refusal to comply.
“Because I said so” is a tired, ineffective response to your kids’ refusal to comply. It’s also lazy parenting. The only goal being obedience by imposing your power. If you’re a parent, you need to know something. Obedience is easy, especially when you have power.
I get it. You’re tired. Days are long. And you don’t have the time or energy to explain your intentions. I’m not saying you take an hour to elaborate every “No.”
But you must establish communication as a two-way street. If you don’t create a culture of dialogue with your kids early, what makes you think they will come to you when they need validation or emotional support later?
4. “You’re fine.”
Says who? While I’m not for giving something more attention than it deserves, I’m also not for a lack of empathy. And, yes, that’s what this statement reflects through the eyes of your child.
I experienced this recently with my oldest, Noah. Every night, Tiffani and I pray for our kids before they go to sleep. On this night, Noah didn’t want me to leave. When I asked why, he said, “I’m afraid of the dark.” I instinctively responded with “There’s nothing to be scared of.” Then, I shut the door and went to bed.
Laying in bed, I realized how much I belittled Noah’s emotions. I know there’s nothing to be scared of. I’m 31. I’ve had years to process monsters under the bed, strangers coming out of the closet and stuffed animals coming to life. I watched Child’s Play one, two and three.
Noah is five. His little imagination is running wild. Rather than acknowledge his fears, I basically told him being afraid of the dark is dumb.
When we, as parents, tell our kids “you’re fine,” what’s to make our kids think we won’t say the same thing at 16, when they’re wrestling with depression, anxiety or shame? The answer is nothing.
Instead, they bottle up their emotions, creating bigger problems.
I’m living proof of this. I can’t remember specific incidents with my parents as a young lad. But I do remember struggling with lust, anger and anxiety as a teenager and feeling like my parents wouldn’t understand.
You can’t create a culture of authenticity when you downplay emotions.
5. “Why can’t you be more like _____.”
I don’t know why, but when you have multiple kids, at least one leans towards compliance and at least one leans towards the opposite of compliance. My oldest loves following the rules. He’s five, and if I leave him on the beach without an adult for an entire day, he would stay away from the water and probably wear sunscreen.
It’s easy and natural as a parent to wish your non-compliant children would act like your compliant one. While easy, it’s not healthy.
First, compliant children come with their own issues. Second, you should parent every child from his divine wiring. This requires paying attention to them (their response to situations, interactions with siblings and peers, etc). It also means you must look past behaviors to motives.
Your compliant child, for example, might obey the rules. That’s good. But WHY is he a rule-follower? Does he follow the rules because he’s looking for affirmation? And your non-compliant child. What does his bent towards non-compliance reveal about his divine wiring?
6. “I’ll do that for you.”
Somehow, we’ve come to the point where allowing your kids to fail is called irresponsible parenting. Pish Posh.
I’ll tell you what’s irresponsible.
Not allowing your kids enough space to make a few mistakes. And I’ll tell you why. When your kids enter the real world, they will fail. Life sucker punches everyone a time or twenty. Kids who aren’t allowed to fail in a context where a loving hand is around to pick them up become adults who crumble when the first failure comes. Kids who aren’t allowed to fail are deficient in resilience, a valuable trait for navigating life’s difficulties.
Healthy parenting doesn’t intercede and prevent failure. It gives kids a framework for moving forward and a loving, stable presence in the meantime.
7. “I hope one day you have kids who are just like you.”
I hear this mostly from parents to teenage kids. Every time I hear it, I cringe. I mean, why? What purpose does this statement serve? So, your kid has some flaws. They caused you frustration and forced you to say a few four letter words. But, really? What message are you sending your kids when you say, “I hope God gives you three kids just like you”?
Oooh. Oooh. Pick me, I know.
You’re sending the message that, at best, you don’t like some of your kids’ behaviors and, at worst, you don’t like parenting them.
Maybe you don’t mean this when you say it. This matters not. It’s the message your kid hears that matters. It’s the message I heard, not as much from my mom, but more from other family members and family friends. Now that I’m a parent, it’s a message my children will never hear from me.
It’s your turn.
Are there some messages you think parents should stop saying? Leave a comment below.
Grace and peace, friends.
Frank is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.