Did you know? It’s true. What you focus on grows. Suppose there are 100 parts to our children (and us, for that matter). These parts are either good or bad and proportional. So, if 9 year old Janey has 63 parts good, she has 37 parts bad. The parts always add up to 100. You know what? What you pay attention to grows. If you pay attention to the 63 good parts, over time they become 68, 72, 75 parts. If you pay attention to the 37 bad parts, over time they become 40, 46, 52, and the good parts go proportionally down because, remember, the total always equals 100. Every harsh comment increases the bad parts and lowers the good parts. Every praise and blessing increases the good parts and lowers the bad parts. So, what do you focus on?
“Janey, what is wrong with you? You know better than that!” Wow, can’t you just feel those bad parts creeping up? Sure, Janey will look downcast and feel shamed into stopping her behavior. But, she has learned that she can get your attention by doing bad stuff.
“Hey, Janey, let’s stop just a minute. Are you sure what you are doing is helpful to both you and your brother?” Janey may think, “wait, what?” and be confused at first, but your effort is to join her in figuring out better behavior. She has learned that she can go to you to help her fix things.
My family and I went to the zoo recently. As we are walking around, I pick up snippets of what I call yuppy parenting. “Thank you, son, for walking beside me and not running ahead.” “Wow. Look at you, being a good big sister and gently pushing you baby brother’s stroller.” “Let the younger ones get closer to the glass. Sharing is caring, you know.” These parents bring attention to the good parts and you can see their children beam in their praise.
We live in a world of negatives. We humans crave attention. Attention has an absolute quality to it, so that both negative attention and positive attention fill the bill. Unfortunately, negative attention us usually easier and quicker to get than is positive attention. When you find things about your children to rave about and to heap positive attention on them, you are creating teachable moments. You are giving them a firm foundation of positive self-worth and attention. They will flourish in this negative world. What you focus on grows, so focus on the positive.
In all homes, even in Christian homes, trouble comes in all shapes and sizes. Big trouble, little trouble, parent trouble, kid trouble. The question is not about how to avoid trouble. Rather, it’s, “How much trouble do you want to buy?”
Five year old Joey leaves a mess in the family room after gaming on the TV for a while. Cookie crumbs, spilt milk that the cat is now licking up, jacket thrown on the floor. Well intentioned moms might think, “He’s just a little boy and boys will be boys,” as she cleans up his mess. Of course, mom’s thoughts are exactly right, but how much trouble is she buying both immediately and down the road?
In the present, mom has to either look at the mess and accept a new normal, or take time from what she was doing to clean up Joey’s mess. She might even rationalize that she is being a “good mommy.”
Down the road, Joey becomes a pre-teen with feelings of entitlement with impunity. That is, “I can do what I want with no consequences.” As a teen, has Joey been set up to blow off his studies, get poor grades, come and go as he pleases, and find trouble with the law? Now what kind of a mommy has his mom been?
Imagine my left hand is the point in time when you recognize that there’s a problem. This is a finite point and you can tag the problem to that point in time. My right hand is in motion and represents the time at which point you address the problem. It can be inches from my left hand or as far away as I can reach. You have control over when you address the problem. The distance between my hands defines the amount of trouble you are buying with your response. What to do? What to do?
When I see it this way, I’m want to address the problem as soon as I recognize it, inches from my left hand. I’m not going to hold off and see how it comes out. Holding off just buys more trouble.
My granddaughter has the habit of using the bathroom, and then leaving the lid up, toilet unflushed, and light on in the bathroom. When I notice this, I call it to her attention. Since we have repeatedly had this discussion, all I need to do now is call her name, with “that tone in my voice,” and she goes, “Oh, yeah. I forgot again,” before going back to the bathroom to correct the problem. Hopefully, I am slowly encouraging her to develop healthy, responsible habits. I could yell at her or grumble under my breath as I clean her mess up. However, both of those options are power-related and only lead to anger, frustration, and emotional distance.
Addressing problems as soon as we are aware of them minimizes the trouble and creates a teachable moment while also encouraging emotional intimacy and healthy relationship. How much trouble do you want to buy? For me, as little as possible.
Your child is looking downcast and more quiet than usual. Do you continue to focus in on the TV, hoping his phase will go away, or do you address the problem? What to do?
When my daughter was 3 years old, a long time ago, I was talking to a friend in the back yard. She came up to me and pulled on my pant leg. “Daddy, I need some attention.” Not your typical 3 year old, and not the kind of attention-getting behavior our children give us. However your child acts, pay attention to the cues.
Rachel gave me a verbal cue. Most children her age will go with a nonverbal cue, like the downcast look and quiet funk. “Hey, Punkin. What’s going on in that noodle of yours?” This is a good lead-in and gives your child opportunity to make her nonverbal behavior verbal. If they don’t respond, accept that and offer to be available to talk when they are ready. If they do respond, hear them out, use active listening and be empathetic. “So, what I hear you saying is…” “Let me get this straight. You feel…?” When you see their emotional fever drop, suggest, “I have some thoughts about what’s up. Do you want to hear them?”
It’s so powerful when you ask your child’s permission to counsel, regardless of their age. Children feel empowered and are more likely to act on what you have to offer. If you offer wise counsel and they don’t want it right then, it falls on deaf ears. Asking their permission opens up their ears to what you have to say.
Be creative in your problem-solving and active listening. Children love to be outside the box. The core feelings for kids are mad, bad, sad, and glad. That’s all you will get and that’s not much. “You feel put upon, vulnerable, excluded.” Take the core feelings a little further. “You sound thrilled, beside yourself, joyful.” These more expressive feelings may be both on target and also will help your child be more creative in expressing what they feel. Helping your child through a problem? Pay attention and be creative.
Would you ever expect your child to pop out of bed, come to breakfast with a smile and good mood, when she is under the weather? If she has a fever of 100' or 101', can you expect her to do her homework well, do her chores without complaint?
Of course not! First you treat the fever. If aches and pains go along with the fever, uh oh, might be the flu. Time for chicken soup, cold compresses, bed rest. Lay low, sweetheart, and let's get you better.
What about when she has an emotional fever? What's that like? It usually comes in the form of upset over things not going right for her, being told "no" when she had her heart set on something, friends not being able to come over, school or friendship or relationship drama. Then you hear attitude, disrespect, and noncompliance.
First, take her temperature. If she has a physical fever, treat the symptoms first. If she does not, then treat the emotional fever. If you come at her with consequence and control because of her attitude and words, you've lost a teachable moment. Empathy for what you think she is feeling, also called Active Listening, is the cure for the emotional fever. As you understand the feelings behind her actions and words, her emotional fever comes down. Only then will she be receptive to changing her behavior.