When we go on vacation each summer, we buy a new jigsaw puzzle and lay it out on a table smack in the middle of our rental. At one time or another, each of us has put at least one piece of the puzzle in place. Some of us spend more time than others, but all contribute and the puzzle is complete before we pack up to head home.
The cover of my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, has a picture of a home with the puzzle almost all together. As Christian parents, we are all daily picking up random pieces of our family, looking at them from all angles, measuring, trying them out in a place, removing them, trying them out in another place. We look for clues by examining the picture on the box. That would be our ideal picture of how our family should look to the world.
But in our real world, we can't depend on what our family "should" look like. We are who we are. Our jigsaw pieces are three-dimensional, fluid, ever changing shapes. We are left to capture each piece in time and find a fit. We mold our shape to the shape of others in our family. Each of us is ever changing shape and yet fitting together as family in a unique, engaging, loving way.
Oh, for sure, there are times when individual pieces just don't seem to fit the puzzle. Think teens with hormones just trying to figure themselves out. Think terrible twos who are just figuring out how to say "no." Good luck trying to fit them into your concept of your family puzzle. The best we can do is change only that over which we have control. As Christian parents, we make every effort to be healthy, godly role models for our children. We can do that, and what we do and how we are has an enormous influence over our children, but they'll never tell you that.
The second thing we can do is be there for each of our children. Be there with time, with activity, and with heart. When little Tommy is out of sorts, set healthy boundaries, hold and nurture him, and use your go-to active listening to help him sort out his own feelings. Share your wisdom and find teachable moments.
As we go through life, individual puzzle pieces frequently fit together, occasionally . Savor those times. When all the family puzzle pieces align, even just for a moment, praise God, for He is at work in your home. Families are a puzzle.
Pre-teen Amy comes home from school and bursts through the kitchen door. “The other girls are being mean to me. I hate them,” she cries as she melts into her mama’s arms. You hug and console her, using your best active listening to help her through her hurt feelings. Amy feels better but concludes, “I’m never going back to school.” Your continued active listening brings her emotional fever down. She soon feels better and loses interest in talking any further.
Tweenager is the term for children who are no longer children but not yet teenagers. Tweenage drama is universal. You did your best in helping Amy with her immediate upset, but there’s more talking to be done.
Later that night, during the bedtime routine, you speak up. “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry those mean girls got to you today. Let’s pray that tomorrow will be better.” Afterward, you lead with, “You know, Amy, I have some thoughts. Do you want to hear them?” Whatever your child’s age, asking permission to talk to them perks up their ears and almost always leads to a yes answer.
Generally, drama comes from two sources, either worry or sadness. Worry starts with the question, “What if…?” What if they stay mean to me? What if I can’t get over it? And so forth. Sadness usually starts with the statement, “If only…” If only I had walked down the clear hallway. If only Kathy would have stood up to them for me.
Being a mindful parent involves helping your child understand their feelings in the moment by active listening. Then, help them stay in the moment as they interact with you and others. Consider my stretched out arms to be the ends of a straight time line that stretches from way in the past, on my left, through the present, to way into the future on my right. Take the midpoint and sweep your left hand out. Sadness is regretting the past. Take the midpoint and sweep your right hand out. Worry is fearing what lies in the future. By bringing both of your hands from the outstretched ends together at the midpoint, you are being mindful and staying in the moment.
Mom’s explanation to her daughter Amy was a profound teachable moment that helped Amy take care of her own problems, and not let stuff get to her, by being mindful and staying in the moment. Help your children be centered in their lives.
Life is full, and that’s a better option than life being empty. But sometimes a full life falls under the category of, be careful what you pray for because you just might get it.
In the Bower family, mornings can be chaos central. The alarm goes off but nobody gets out of bed. Mom drags herself up, rousts the two kids, and heads for the kitchen to find the cereal box. Dad grumbles as he gets into the shower. Mom hears her middle school daughter scream, “Mooooom! I can’t find the blouse I want to wear today.” Her high school son wanders sleepily into the kitchen wearing the same clothes he slept in last night. She starts to tell him to go change into clean clothes. Then remembers that she was too tired to do laundry last night. Her daughter screams again, startling her. She drops the box of cereal onto the floor and cereal scatters everywhere. Chaos central? Yep. Can this scene be avoided in your house? By all means. Three steps can get you on your way to a more cooperative, less chaotic morning routine. Join forces by using a family meeting to Prepare, Instruct, and Reward.
Prepare by planning ahead. Anything that can be done the night before, should be. That includes showers, children putting out their clothes to wear the next day, homework, strategically locating bookbags and electronics, getting the load of clothes done, and reviewing breakfast plans.
Next, instruct each family member on their role and responsibilities. Nobody gets off the hook, especially Dad if both parents work outside the home. Be detailed. Write down each person’s expectations and give a copy to each family member.
Finally, reward jobs well done. When you see the plan working, make a big deal out of it. It’s true that the carrot works better than the stick. Where there are issues, use your active listening to understand the frustrations and to encourage cooperation. Schedule a follow-up family meeting to re-tool the system and plan a family reward for the weekend after a successful week.
Because each of us has so much to do each and every day, your home can be chaos central at times. If you prepare, instruct, and reward the troops through family meetings and with active listening, with consistency over time, it doesn’t have to be.
When my wife, Maggie, and I go out to eat, I frequently take notice of how many patrons are on their cell phones in the restaurant. Guess. Give up? Try as many as 70% of the tables in the restaurant have at least one person on their cell phone. I’ve seen whole families at a table, each on a cell phone! Whoa! Actually, I should be glad the family is eating together. Back in the day, families ate on average 17 of 21 meals together per week. Now? Try 3-4 shared meals together. Verbally, we may talk about having a meal together, but nonverbally? Not so much.
In relationship building, verbal communication gets all the press. Nonverbal communication is often seen merely as the backdrop for verbal communication. However, each is vital and instrumental in creating emotionally healthy relationships. To be on the same page with your child, what you say and what you do should match.
Missy comes up to her dad in his home office, where he is paying bills. “Daddy, got a sec?” she asks. “Sure, hon. What’s on your mind?” he responds without moving or looking toward her. “Oh, never mind,” Missy sighs. “I’ll see if Mama can help me,” she looks down, sighs, and shuffles away. “Uh huh, okay, dear, you do that,” Dad absent-mindedly comments without his eyes or attention moving from the bills. Then he adds insult to injury by stating, “Glad I could help.” Missy would be heartbroken, but she never really expected her dad to help her.
Ouch! Dad’s verbals were inviting, engaging, anticipating. His nonverbals were distracting, distancing, and demeaning. Missy has learned not to go to her dad with needs, but she desperately wants his attention, so she keeps hoping, maybe this time…
Mom is putting the finishing touches on supper and sees her son, Jake, playing with neighborhood kids outside. “Time to come in, Jake, and get ready for supper,” she calls out the kitchen window. “Okay, Mom,” Jake dutifully responds. Mom gets busy with the meal. Jake’s not inside after ten minutes and she looks out again, but he is nowhere in sight. She swallows a frustrated, “that boy…” and then calls the mother of Jake’s best friend. After locating, scolding and threatening him, she hangs up the phone. When Jake gets home ten minutes later, she gives him his meal to eat in his bedroom as punishment for blowing her off. He half-heartedly protests, but takes his meal to his room. While eating, he turns on his TV, pulls out his phone, and texts his friends about the show on TV.
Jake's words and actions are same ol’ same ol’ for him. They don’t match. Words and actions need to match for a relationship to be healthy. Do yours?
Well, the answer is, they can be both, depending on how productive your leadership is. If you are the boss in your family, and everybody better just get in line, then family meetings will be seen as boring. Many a smart-mouthed teen will comment, “We’re just gonna do what you want us to do, so why bother?” This teen would be calling out his parent on the hypocrisy of a family meeting.
Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way. It is true that a family is not a democracy. If you have more than two children, imagine putting things to a democratic, simple majority vote. The Kids Party will vote together every time. However, if you, as the parent, function as a benevolent despot, then kids have a voice, while you make the choice.
As benevolent despot, you have the ultimate authority in your home, in all ways. However, focus on the benevolent part. That means you know and understand each family member, search for their feelings, and want their input. They understand that you will do what’s best for all family members. Active listening is the go-to communication tool in understanding your child’s feelings and perspective.
For family meetings to be helpful, there needs to be both consistency and structure. Perhaps for a half hour, after Sunday church, during family lunchtime, could be a time when family meetings can take place. This can be a check-in time for everybody, where the past week’s events can be reviewed and the coming week’s events can be planned. Great way to coordinate schedules in a busy family.
If one of these regularly scheduled family meetings has a specific purpose, for example, planning a summer family vacation, then all family members need a heads-up before the meeting. This would be setting the agenda. It also gets people thinking about what they want to contribute. After prayer, to acknowledge God’s presence in the family, and re-stating the purpose of the family meeting, I encourage parents to ask for the youngest child’s input first. There will be banter and sibling rivalry. People will go out of turn. Parents gently rein in detractors.
Start with brainstorming ideas without comment. This gets the creative juices going and encourages involvement. Help people stay on task. Have one person be the designated secretary and write options down. Next, talk about the good and the bad about each option. Again, use your active listening to help others get at the heart of their reasoning. Look for consensus among the options.
If there is not consensus, as parents, you get to make the final choice. That’s the despot part, but with heartfelt understanding and consideration of everyone’s thoughts and feelings. That’s the benevolence part. With a proposed solution, get all family members involved in making it happen. Assign tasks for everyone, even the littlest family member if possible. This participation encourages involvement and acceptance, focusing on the positives. Finally, identify the next family meeting to review progress and stay on task.
Family meetings can be boring, or they can be helpful. The more you address your children’s needs and feelings, the more heard they feel, the more family meetings can be helpful.
In life, at all ages, there is one, absolute and common rule. Do good and good things will happen. Do bad and bad things will happen. As parents, we want this to be our guiding principle for disciplining our children. Reward is the outcome when our children are doing good. Punishment is the consequence when they are doing bad. For some reason, most parents are more tuned in to the doing bad part of being a child. It takes effort to catch our children being good.
Ten year old Nick has been re-writing his spelling words for 20 minutes now. After supper, he scooted to his room, turned off his electronics, and got down to homework without even being told to do so. His mom peeked in his doorway and smiled at him. He’s so cute when the tip of his tongue sneaks out the corner of his mouth as he is concentrating.
Just then, Nick catches his mom watching him. “What??” and he frowns, “Leave me alone.” “Careful, son. Watch your tone,” mom scolds. Nick frowns, throws his pencil down, and stomps past his mom in silence to use the bathroom.
Mom just blew a perfect opportunity to catch Nick being good. In such circumstances, I encourage parents to use what is called “The Sandwich Effect.” When you find a need to correct your child’s behavior or attitude, put the caution between two praise comments, like two slices of bread with meat in between.
As Nick breezed by her, mom could have said, “Aww. You are knocking out those spelling words. I bet you do great on the test tomorrow.” That’s a praise comment. Follow it with a caution, “Not sure how the attitude fits in here. I didn’t mean to break your concentration.” And finish with another praise comment, “I’m so proud of you for tackling these spelling words on your own. Let me know if you want me to quiz you later.”
The two praise comments for every caution or correction is a good ratio to follow. Over time, you get tuned in to catching your child being good, and your child receives the criticism without making matters worse. Kids always test the limits and, by nature, can wear us out. In Ephesians 6, the apostle Paul cautions children to obey their parents, as the right thing to do, and parents to not provoke their anger, but bring them up in the ways of the Lord. The best way to do that is to catch them being good
There is no end to the opportunities and ways in which we can positively influence our children. Those opportunities are at the heart of teachable moments.
“Daddy, why do turtles have shells?” Answering such questions softly, directly, and with emotional intensity creates a teachable moment. “Well, sweetheart, that’s a good question. The turtle’s body is under that thick shell. It would be sad for turtles body’s to be exposed to the dangers of their world. Now, you don’t have a turtle’s shell (and then I playfully poke my daughter’s tummy), but how your mama and I loving and protecting you and keeping you safe is kinda like having your own turtle shell.”
When you notice your child having an emotional fever, however, start with active listening to help get the fever down before launching into a teachable moment.
“This stinks!! (my son slams his math book down and throws his pencil at the wall) I’m never going to get these stupid math problems.” Now, you have a choice. You can correct the behavior and miss connecting with your son and not have a teachable moment. “You stop that right now, young man. Get back to work. Math will be important to you one day.”
OR, you active listen to help lower his emotional fever and reframe the event to help him get perspective.
“Wow, that math’s kicking your butt!”
“I hate it! I’ll never get it.”
“It’s frustrating for it to not come to you easily, like playing baseball does, huh. But tell me something. Why are you so good at baseball?”
“I’m a natural.” My son smiles broadly.
“I see. Hmmm. Got all that talent without a lick of practice, huh?”
“Well, no. I’m in the batting cage every day. I eat well. I get my sleep. I chill out. I listen to my coach.”
“Hmmm. So, if I’m hearing you correctly, there’s a lot of hard work and effort to becoming a natural athlete. Hmmm.”
“Okay, Dad, I see what you are doing here.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Well, my math teacher’s my coach, and this stupid homework is my practice. And if I don’t keep at it, math will kick my butt.”
“Wow! I don’t think I could have said it better myself. I’ve got some suggestions about that stupid math. Do you want to hear them?
Teachable moments come in all shapes and sizes. They happen playfully, out of fun times. They also happen seriously, out of emotional storms. The key is to be ready for the opportunity and to make the most of it. Teachable moments create fun, responsibility, creativity, problem-solving, emotional intimacy, and positive childhood memories. Teachable moments are your gift to your children.
Your 3 year old daughter, Megan, is trying to build a tower with blocks. It keeps falling down. After three tries, the fourth time it falls down again. She picks up a block and hurls it, before throwing herself on the floor and dissolving into tears.
Being the ever vigilant mom, you see this meltdown and conclude, “Hmm. Looks like my little girl has an emotional fever.” You go to Megan to console her.
This is your moment of decision. Some moms would scold. “Young lady, you don’t throw blocks like that. You could have broken something or hurt your brother.” That scolding, although completely warranted, does not console and creates emotional distance between you and Megan.
Other moms might go into lecture mode. “Darling, how do you expect to get that tower made if you just give up like that? You know what they say, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Again, lost opportunity and, by the way, you might duck after the lecture because Megan might just wing the next block at you.
When your child has a problem, and you notice symptoms of an emotional fever, active listening is the go-to remedy. Scolding or lecturing take lots of empty words to make your point. These tactics are all about you and your power. Active listening uses an economy of words. The fewer the better. Your goal is to try to say back to Megan what you think she might be feeling in the moment. “Wow! You’re really frustrated right now, huh?” As a rule of thumb, most people can accurately state a feeling in five words or less. More words creeps into lecture mode, or unnecessary explanation that dilutes the impact of shared feeling. However, as long as you see symptoms of an emotional fever, continue active listening. Stay current with what your child is saying. Most kids can say they are mad, glad, sad, or bad. Active listening helps them expand their feeling word vocabulary and enriches the emotional intimacy you are building with your child.
When helping your child through a difficulty, use active listening. And, did you know? Less is more.
In a perfect world, you get your child and she gets you all the time. Everybody who lives in such a perfect world, raise your hand. Nope. I didn’t think so. In our imperfect world, what we say and how we say it doesn’t always match. So we have verbal and nonverbal communication. As parents, we need to actively listen to both what our children say and to how they say it.
Your five year old son is sitting in a chair, arms crossed over his chest, scowling, and he then turns his chair completely away from you. In your best parenting way, you ask, “Hey, buddy, what’s up?” His response? “Leave me alone. I don’t love you anymore.” Your shoulders slump and there’s a catch in your throat. You turn to leave the room, and then he starts crying. His verbals tell you go away, but his nonverbals tell you to stay. What to do?
When confronted with mixed signals, attend to both and accept your confusion. A self-absorbed parent might respond to his child’s words with, “You don’t talk to me that way. I am your father.” With those comments, you’ve lost opportunity to console your child, find out what happened, and have a teachable moment.
Instead, stay in the moment and acknowledge what you think is going on. “Wow. I’m really confused. You tell me to go away, but then start crying when I do. Wanna talk about it?” Sometimes, under even the best circumstances, your child will say, “no.” Don’t persist. Simply suggest, “I can give you your space, but when you do want to talk about it, I want to listen.”
Similarly, if your teen approaches you asking to talk and you respond, “Sure, Son. What’s on your mind?” Yet, your head and attention are still buried in the newspaper. Here, you are the one with the mixed messages. Your words will have more impact and be more important to your child when your head, your heart, and your voice are all on the same page.
When your verbal and nonverbal communication line up, you have more integrity with your child. When you observe and try to unravel your child’s mixed messages, you develop emotional intimacy and opportunity for a teachable moment. How you say it is just as important as what you say.
We all have moods. Good moods, bad moods, in between moods. We all have symptoms. Fever? Chills? Achy? Thankfully, symptoms are rare in our lives. Moods, however? They come and go with greater frequency. While the symptoms of physical ailment are rather obvious, not so much for emotional upset.
When your child becomes whiny, fearful, clingy, withdrawn, these may be signs of a mood, or they may be signs of anxiety, depression, relational issues, or other emotional malady. What to do? How to tell the difference?
In over 45 years of clinical practice with children, teens, and their families, I've come to develop the 6-8 week rule. That is, if you notice these signs for less than 6-8 weeks, they probably are evidence of a mood. If they persist for longer than 6-8 weeks, they might be symptoms.
The keys, of course, are relationship and vigilance. "Hey, Son, I notice that you've been kinda edgy lately. Wanna talk?" With healthy relationship, he will want to talk with you. If not, make sure he knows that you're available when he does want to. Active listening is your go to response when you notice your child's emotional fever spike.
Vigilance might involve tracking your child's feelings and behaviors over time, to notice if they persist. With persistent worry, you could guide them through changing thoughts from "what if" to "I wonder" and attaching a positive outcome to the "I wonder." With persistent sadness or withdrawal, you could guide them with check-ins daily and help them rank their days from 1-10, with the higher numbers being better days.
If the signs persist longer than 8 weeks, talk to each other and with your child about getting professional counseling. Just as with persistent physical symptoms that impact your child's quality of life, and you would take her to her pediatrician, so too with persistent emotional symptoms, you would take her to her family counselor. Mood or symptom? You have the tools to help your child handle it.