We were on our way out the door for church when I noticed it: my daughter's hair. Strings hung unevenly, and parts were still damp. It was a mess! Her hair looked as though she hadn't touched it, but I knew she had. I desperately wanted to tell her to brush it, but experience taught me to keep my mouth shut. After all, she was seventeen, and it was just hair!
Raising five children has given me lots of opportunities to learn when to keep my mouth shut and when to speak. Mostly I've learned from making mistakes! But along the way I've uncovered some helpful hints.
Get the facts. It's important to make sure you have all the facts before you pass judgment. Ask good questions before jumping to conclusions—questions that deal with who, what, when, where, and why. When you have adequate facts, you'll be less likely to jump to false assumptions.
When assessing the facts, differentiate between feelings and actions. Your daughter has been hurt by a clique of girls at school. She feels they hate her and that she has no friends. Because of their treatment, she doesn't want to go over to one of their houses on Saturday as she had promised. Listen to her express her feelings. Validate them. Give her the comfort of your hugs. Say, "I know you feel hurt and wounded, but you said you'd go over to her house on Saturday and you must go. We keep our commitments. Let's pray that God will honor you as you do this and that Saturday will be a time of healing."
Our kids must learn early in life that we cannot always let feelings determine our actions. We have to learn to do what's right, not necessarily what we feel like.
Consider the age and the issue. The younger your child, the more your guidance is needed. If you're firm in your child's early years, then you can gradually loosen up as your child enters adolescence. Yes, your eight year old should be taught to be neat and clean when going to church. It's a way of showing respect for God. But when your teen chooses your least favorite outfit, it's best to keep your mouth shut (unless the outfit is totally disrespectful).
Clothes are a swing issue. Character, on the other hand, is a crucial issue. How a child dresses, how he decorates his room, are swing issues. But lying is a crucial issue because it has to do with developing godly character. Determine whether your issue is a swing issue or a character issue, and consider the age of your child.
Timing is important. When you say something can have a dramatic impact on how it's received. Let's say the mail comes, and you discover your son's received a notice that he bounced another check. You're furious. Then you notice him coming in from school. Resist the temptation to hit him with your lecture the minute he walks in the front door. Instead, welcome him home, give him a snack, and hear about his day. Later, after he's had some down time, tell him you need to discuss a problem with him.
Also resist the tendency to correct or to embarrass your child in front of others—especially if you have a teenager. Instead, discuss issues privately with your child.
Watch how you say things. Parents often have the tendency to either clam up or blow up. Neither is wise. A mom who simply keeps her mouth shut all the time can breed insecurity in her child because the child won't know where she stands or what her parent really believes. On the other hand, it's far better to wait and think through how to say something than it is to blow up and later regret how you handled the situation.
Sometimes it helps to write notes to your child—notes expressing empathy for a painful situation, notes with verses of encouraging Scripture, notes that express confidence in him or her. Notes can be saved and notes don't demand a response.
When you struggle with a difficult issue, it never hurts to say, "I may be wrong, but I have decided to . …" Then stand firm. Kids will respect honesty.
Avoid cynical humor. A mother recently said to her young teenage daughter, "Get up off the couch before you leave a dent in it." This was not funny to the daughter who was struggling with her weight.
Ephesians 4:29 says, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."
It's helpful to ask yourself, Would I speak to my best friend the same way I'm speaking to my child? You can be a firm parent and speak with respect.
Use a mentor as a sounding board. We cannot raise our children alone; we need the help of others. And we especially need the help of someone who's ahead of us in raising kids. Someone who's been there has the perspective we often lack when we're in the midst of it. They can help us with questions such as, "Is there really a problem with my child, or is it hormones, stress, or exhaustion?" Find an older mentor who has a strong faith and a good relationship with her kids. Seek her advice as you face different challenges. She'll be a great source of encouragement. And be willing to be that mentor in a younger mom's life.
Pray, pray, pray! The most important thing you can ever do for your child is to pray for him. If you don't know whether to speak about an issue, pray for God to show you, then wait until he does. Often I write in a prayer journal asking for his guidance about a matter. If I don't have a clear sense, I ask him to confirm it. And then I record how God answers. It's amazing to see how he works. While his working may seem slow to us at times, God does what's best, not necessarily what's fast.
And don't forget, when you say something you shouldn't (and you will!), be sure to acknowledge it and ask for forgiveness. Kids aren't looking for perfect parents, but for honest parents, humble parents who are willing to say, "I was wrong. Will you forgive me?"
Susan Alexander Yates is author of A House Full of Friends (Focus on the Family) and coauthor, with daughter Allison Yates Gaskins, of Thanks, Mom, for Everything (Servant). She is mother to five children.
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