W Publishing Group
It’s a defining moment in the life of every potential parent. I’m sure you remember exactly how you felt standing on the threshold of beginning a family of your own.
I’m sure you can recall how every instinct told you that this next step would be the most profound and permanent commitment of your life. You felt the powerful responsibility of taking charge of a young life. Once the door of parenting is opened, there is no turning back.
Facing the question as a young adult, you were a bit eager, a big awed, a bit afraid. Yet your parents, your siblings, and your friends urged you on impatiently. Sure, marriage was a wonderful thing, they agreed—but parenting was the ultimate! It was the very reason you were placed here on earth. “Just wait,” they whispered. “It will change your life forever!” You heard those words time and again, and you knew they were true: You could see the joy in the eyes of your friends as they bounced their own infants on their laps. You could observe the obsession as they pulled out their stacks and stacks of photographs; hours and hours of home movies.
In fact, their new-baby tunnel vision was a bit tiring. These ambassadors of parenthood could not or would not discuss any other subject. They had been totally absorbed by this new world of The Baby. You felt a bit uncomfortable and, yes, a little lonely as you watched them happily vanish into the cocoons they were knitting around themselves and their new families. It was the end of reckless youth and spontaneity.
But you wanted to be like them. You wanted to share the adventure. And when your first child arrived, you understood the joy fully. There in your arms lay a tiny human being—a mysterious and wonderful blend of you, your spouse, and his or her own unique personhood, beautifully crafted by the loving fingers of God. Your child was pink, helpless, and could do little more than eat, cry, and soil diapers—yet her very presence seemed to sing out the words of the psalm:
You created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well. (Psalm 139:13–14)
And so began your grand rite of passage, your initiation into the mystery of human development—the culmination of your very life. There followed all the milestones of baby’s early growth and maturity: sitting up, pulling up, walking, the first words, and eventually the epic battles of potty training.
But as your children grew and changed, you learned something crucial: The task of raising children doesn’t become easier, but grows increasingly complex as the children themselves become older and more complex. And you learned that being a mom or a dad would require all the energy and wisdom you had, and more.
Newborns bring us their own challenges, of course: late-night diaper changes, colic, and the like—but the task is relatively direct, focused, and straightforward compared to that of navigating the volatile waters of a thirteen-year-old daughter at the outset of puberty. And from the uneasy moment when you leave your child in the kindergarten classroom, you realize you can no longer monitor all the variables in that little one’s life; there are teachers, classmates, and other outside forces that come into play.
I think you’ll agree that the pathway of parenting, from birth to adolescence, is like a trail that begins in a sun-bathed clearing and twists into an ever more tangled forest, with many unanticipated crossroads where difficult decisions must be made. No child is the same; no choice is the same. You think back to those first days with your new baby and realize you had no idea how difficult and demanding this home-building mission would be. Sometimes God is gracious in the naiveté he allows us.
Still, I know you have experienced those inevitable moments of frustration as a parent. We need a plan; we need some understanding. There is nothing in life we desire more than for our children to grow up wise, healthy, and spiritually strong, and so we agonize over the decisions we face at those confusing forks along the path.
Let’s take a closer look at the basic variables of children and parenting.
You’ve surely noticed an odd phenomenon in the way different children develop—you have probably seen it within your own family. How can two children be raised similarly yet take different developmental paths?
Let’s begin with Tony. Tony was a joy to guide through childhood. There were times when his parents smiled and thought, “This parenting thing is a piece of cake! We had no idea it could be so easy to raise a well-behaved child. There must be something wrong with Bill and Lola down the street, who have had so much trouble with their little boy.”
Tony was pleasant and easy to handle—never a discipline problem, never embarrassing out in public. He responded to each new stage of development like a champion, and what a joy it was to share him with extended family; to enjoy his easy obedience; to see him excel in his first years of school.
Then, somewhere around the middle school years, something changed. The old Tony seemed to—well, to fade out; and some new, unwelcome Tony took his place. Tony’s mom and dad racked their brains to figure out what could have brought about this change. Could it have been the transition between elementary and middle school? No, because the teachers and environment were excellent in both cases. Could it be something physical? No, the doctors couldn’t find a thing.
The fact remains that Tony somehow became a discontented, angry, defiant, and disagreeable young man. Not only did his A-average plummet in school, but he didn’t seem to care. And he was constantly in rebellion against the parents who had adored him and doted on him. He and his parents hung on to their fracturing relationship through Tony’s high-school days. He even managed to get into college, but he didn’t make it through the first year. By that time he was deeply into drug abuse and got into all kinds of trouble in his dormitory. He left school, got a few dollars from Dad, drove out of town—and no one is certain where he is now.
Then there was the “other” child, Tony’s brother, Rick. Rick was a more free-spirited child than Tony; more active, more spontaneous, more prone to laughter and mischief. When he was little you had to keep an eye on him every minute, but he wasn’t a bad child—just an active and curious one. Aunts and uncles said, “Keep an eye on that one! He’ll be a handful when he hits the teenage years.”
But that’s not what happened. Somehow Rick passed right through puberty and adolescence without any of the familiar turbulence. His parents weren’t pushed away; they remained his friends and partners in growth and development. He never got into trouble at school, nor did he become rebellious or angry. As a matter of fact, Rick’s life and maturity just kept deepening and becoming stronger, right into adulthood.
What made the difference? Is one child just a “bad seed,” doomed from the beginning due to some unknown genetic quirk? If children can vary so widely in their behavior, even within a single family, does it even make a difference what strategies for parenting are used?
Of course it does. Although we must recognize the basic mysteries of the human soul—the unknown variables of personal growth and development for a given child—we know that good parenting makes a tremendous difference. Understanding the individual nature of your child—what makes him Rick or Tony or someone else entirely—then parenting proactively, can make all the difference in the world.
We also know that like any other endeavor, good parenting requires a long-term perspective. Let’s take a closer look at the importance of that concept.
It doesn’t matter what part of your life we’re discussing: You will find the greatest wisdom in considering it from the long view. We call that perspective, and perhaps another word for it is wisdom.
Perspective is depth perception. We enjoy a view of the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon because we can see the beauty of distance. But human relationships have perspective, too. There is the gift of looking at a child’s traits and behavior patterns and understanding how he or she moves years into the future.
In all we do, perspective brings wisdom. If you are living simply for today, you are far more likely to eat that extra helping of ice cream or put off the pressing chores. But if you are wise—if you take two steps back and look at things from the long view—you will act not based on what feels good today, but on what is beneficial for tomorrow and forever. As Solomon tells us about the difference in choosing God’s wisdom:
Then you will understand what is right and just
and fair—every good path.
For wisdom will enter your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.
Discretion will protect you,
and understanding will guard you. (Proverbs 2:9–11)
Perspective makes a profound difference. Through many years of counseling families, I have noticed how many mothers and fathers parent only in the present moment, rather than taking that long-term perspective we identify with wisdom. They are so focused on Junior’s irritating behavior in the here and now that they completely miss the greater implications. And the result of that misdirected strategy is that their parenting is based on the child’s actions rather than on his or her needs. Allow me to explain what I mean by actions (or behavior) versus needs.
Jill is very angry and very whiny. She wants to go on that big overnight sleepover at Amanda’s house, but it doesn’t fit into your family plans. It happens to be the same night when Jill needs to be visiting her grandmother with the rest of your family. So you give your daughter a firm no, and the discussion is all over but the whining.
You are tired, your spouse is tired, and the last thing you want to hear is a marathon round of whining. You’re just not in the mood. That’s what you’re thinking right now.
But what is going on in your daughter’s mind? Jill doesn’t hear any whining; to her it sounds like reasoning, like presenting her case. She is emotionally focused on the issue of the sleepover, which to her is presently the world’s most urgent issue.
This doesn’t mean you should give in, but it does mean you stand together at one of those lesser parenting crossroads—and a number of lesser ones add up. Jill is going to come out of this episode either with unresolved anger or a positive (if painful) learning experience.
If you are focused on the needs of this moment, you’ll simply want to turn the spigot that shuts off the whining. You’ll focus on bottling up her unappealing behavior, and doing it quickly. And the likely course of that action is for this incident to become more fuel for Jill’s fire: frustration over this and other episodes when, to her mind, no one cared about her desires. Frustration then adds up to anger.
But if you are looking at things in more than one flat dimension—if you are focused on the needs of her growth experience, on the lines of perspective that lead to her future and her maturity, you will hear her more clearly—then you will approach the crisis in a very different way.
You will still have to deal with the whining and the impossibility of giving Jill her way; but it will not be simply reacting to her behavior. It will be wise action based on Jill’s needs, and on helping Jill come away with something positive from the experience. Not that this is any easy task (we will look at some ways you can do this later on). The key for right now is the focus on long-term issues rather than on the short-term gratification of cutting out unpleasant behaviors.
Think of it another way. If you deal with your children based completely on their behavior, your children will understand that. They will see you as police officers of the home, concerned only with keeping the peace. They will know their actions determine all that goes on in the home, and they can therefore choose their actions to leverage a certain measure of power. And power is such a huge issue in the home. When your children become angry, they will pay great prices in discipline just to test the limits of that power.
Just like the small child who throws a tantrum simply for the attention it brings, your children will act disruptively right on into adolescence and beyond, using unpleasant behavior to control their environment the only way they can. And of course they will hurt not only you and those around them; they will hurt themselves most of all.
Dealing with your children based on their behavior puts them in control of the home. But dealing with them based on their long-term needs lets the parents set the agenda. It keeps the child’s journey toward maturity on course.
Reactive parenting, then, is driven by the child’s actions. Proactive parenting is driven by the child’s needs—and by the constant discovery of new growth opportunities.
At this point, please allow me to explain why I’ve prepared this book for you.
For many years I served as a child psychiatrist, a family counselor, and, of course, a loving father. Early on in my career I discovered that virtually every family that entered my office needed to begin with the same basic information. For example, I observed that most parents had never clearly considered the basic foundational needs of every child.
Rather than spending valuable time and session fees reviewing these, I put together a little book that covered these fundamentals. At the initial agreement to begin counseling with a new patient or family, I could simply hand them the materials and say, “Read these carefully before we meet again.”
My pastor, Ben Haden, had a copy of the little book on “how to really love your child.” He showed it to his publishing friends, and it became a book that sold more than one million copies nationally and internationally. That was my first experience as an author, and I relate this only to make the point that my files are filled with letters from parents testifying to the success of these approaches. I’ve proved them myself, of course, through my own children, who have in turn successfully used them with their children.
How to Really Love Your Child and its successors, then, have represented the sum total of my experience in counseling and child psychiatry. I know that these concepts are true and that these strategies can help you raise wise, emotionally fulfilled children who will become adults of spiritual depth and integrity.
In 1996 I retired from practice and looked forward to many mellow years of enjoying my grandchildren and pursuing travel and hobbies. But in that period of time I’ve observed changes in our cultural climate that are even more serious than what came before. I’ve seen a new generation of young people grow up and become parents themselves, with little or no idea about how to love and train their children. Many of them have been raised in the wrong kind of atmosphere—often based on shortsighted behavior modification principles—with heavy-handed discipline resulting in unresolved anger. That anger, in turn, is harming marriages, careers, and sons and daughters.
At the same time, as we’ve discussed, I’ve felt our social world slipping into a new and frightening world that needs a new and fresh word to reassure us that no matter what challenges face us, we and our children can make it through—we can trust God as we always have. We can make use of the best wisdom and understanding. And above all, we can love our children and instill in them the wisdom and fortitude to prevail amid the uncertainties of tomorrow.
That’s why you’re holding this book. Within the total field of parenting, these pages summarize our best past wisdom for the benefit of our future challenges. Before we begin the main portion of this journey, I would like to review our basic understanding of the needs of every child, as presented in How to Really Love Your Child.
Parents often focus on the more visible or immediate needs of their children: clothing for the new school year; vegetables for a nutritious dinner; athletics or Girl Scouts for the growing-up experiences we’re eager for them to have.
These are all beneficial things, valid elements of the experience of growing up. But of course there are deeper needs that seem less urgent at any given time. They may be “invisible”—less glaring than braces for the teeth or swimming lessons—but these foundational factors will make the difference in how your children come through their growth journey.
I believe there are four essential need areas that all children share. No less than the key to your effectiveness as a parent lies in understanding and meeting these needs—and not one of these can we afford to overlook.
Because each of these four needs is so important, we will spend a significant amount of time in this book examining them individually. A little acronym to help you remember them is NEST, where each letter stands for one of the needs—though we will examine them in a different chronological order.
Let me make one very strong point before I present these four needs. Every one of these four is essential and irreplaceable; none should be overly emphasized at the expense of the others. That would be like emphasizing your body’s need for water over its need for food and air. It would be like building a house with nothing but bedrooms—no kitchens or baths.
The reason I stress this point, and stress it up front, is that as I teach a seminar and present these four needs to parents, I observe their reactions. They often quickly dismiss some of these, saying, “Oh, sure, I love my kids—no problem there,” or “Protection? My kids have no problems in that area.” In particular, the parents get to one particular issue—most often, it is probably discipline—and they beam straight into that one to the exclusion of other areas. One particular issue may have brought them to the seminar, and that’s the only one they are prepared to hear about. I know this because of the period at the end of my presentation, when I open the floor for questions. It’s very clear from what they ask that they missed large segments of what has been taught.
I believe this happens because we live in an age of compartmentalized thinking, in which we find it difficult to consider matters holistically. Have you noticed how people can hear biblical sermons all their lives, yet it doesn’t occur to them to apply the more obvious concepts to practical living from Monday to Saturday? Have you seen someone emotionally moved by a sermon about love—only to nearly run over people trying to get to the parking lot exit first?
Again it’s an issue of the big picture—perspective. Compartmentalized thinking is the natural enemy of the big picture.
Along these lines, we all know that some parents are “feelers”—that is, they are most effectively tuned in to emotional and nurturing issues; others are “thinkers” who are more conceptual. The “feelers” are most likely to pick up on the issues that go along with their orientation. They are affectionate, sensitive to their children’s feelings, and laissez-faire about discipline. They struggle to be firm in the issues of training and discipline. On the other hand, the “thinkers” are most interested in considering the pragmatic disciplinary approaches. They can be very firm, but they may fail to meet their children’s emotional needs.
Unfortunately, even many of the experts do exactly the same thing. They make a nice, simple and marketable package of their self-help philosophies by overemphasizing one aspect of balanced parenting—it all comes down to stern discipline, they tell us; or just be affectionate with your child and you’ll have no problems.
None of us can get very far with only one section of a map—we need the whole picture. I hope and believe that the four areas outlined below give a much more comprehensive perspective on holistic, proactive parenting. Therefore, I would advise you to reflect carefully on each one of these four needs, considering how they are covered in the case of the children in your family. Each is equally important, and the ones where you’re most likely to fail may surprise you.
Here, then, are the four feathers of our NEST:
We need to manage it, model it, and mold our children in a way that they, too, manage it effectively—or this, more than any other factor, can destroy their lives down the road. We will have a great deal to say about training our children to manage their anger.
Our children have basic emotional and nurturance needs. In particular, our children need to feel loved. While we all are quick to acknowledge loving our children, we may not know the best way to express our love to them.
Our children to need to feel safe and protected, both physically and emotionally. This issue becomes even more critical in this new world environment where even elementary schools become danger zones—and where child abuse remains a legitimate threat.
It is here that so many parents unknowingly make terrible mistakes. How can we be proactive and need-based in our disciplinary approaches, rather than simply reacting to negative behavior? The answers may not be easy, but there are indeed good answers.
Let us begin our journey, then, with these four needs. If you can meet them effectively, you will raise a child of integrity, strong in character and emotionally healthy. The first we will consider is the need for emotional nurture.