The Truth Principal

Buy the truth and do not sell it; get wisdom, discipline, and understanding. Proverbs 23:23

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Preparing Students for Life: Things I wish I could tell my younger self

This year, our focus in elementary will be the school’s mission statement: Preparing students for life; natural, spiritual, and eternal. While our students, families, and staff may hear or read our mission statement throughout the year, we don’t always focus on what it really means in the day to day reality of a Christian education. Nor do we frequently and intentionally talk to the students about it so that they can connect what they are learning and doing in school, with “real” life. So this year in chapel and in our classrooms, we will be taking intentional opportunities to connect our learning with how it benefits students both now and in the future. This also provides a general theme that allows me to speak to students about a variety of topics.

One such topic is responsibility. I think it is the desire of every parent and teacher that our children learn to be responsible and take responsibility for their actions. I would like students to realize that learning is their responsibility and I would like to see parents be more comfortable allowing the natural consequence of poor grades when their child has not given their best effort, rather than rescuing them by studying with them and for them. Or to allow their children to navigate the difficulties of peer relationships, learning to get along with difficult people, developing tougher skin when things don’t go their way, and learning to give compassion and forgiveness, without undue parental involvement. Often, with good intentions, we sabotage our efforts to help our children learn responsibility because we aren’t consistent leaving the responsibilities that are appropriately theirs in their lap.

As I was driving down the road a few weeks ago, the song, “Dear Younger Me” by MercyMe came on the radio. It made me think of all my years in education and what I have learned and how I have grown, and what I wish I had known when I was first teaching and raising my own children. I can’t go back and talk to the younger me, but I can talk to you and share with you some of my thoughts on the things I have learned.  Maybe what I share here will benefit you in your parenting or teaching, in a way that will reach a child’s heart and character, and help them grow into mature, responsible, and independent young adults that will bring honor and joy to their parents and to Jesus.

My generation was the generation that mastered the art of helicopter parenting. We over protected, swooped in to rescue, and made sure to build positive “self-esteem” in our children by repeatedly praising them, telling them how great and how special they were, awarding them for participating, and generally coddling them. The result has been a generation of young narcissistic adults, many of whom are still living with their parents into their thirties, and/or have an entitlement mentality, poor work ethic, and have a tendency to be risk averse. While we love our children, it is our job to raise them to be independent of us, responsible adults who contribute positively to society to the glory of God. We parents are completely baffled by how some of our children are living their lives. “How did this happen?” we ask. “We didn’t raise them to be like this!” …or did we?

James 1:2-4 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,  because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Have you ever applied this verse to your children? What does James say brings maturity? Facing trials of many kinds. This is not typically our hope and dream for our children, is it? But think about your own life. Hasn’t it been the trials through which you persevered that brought about the growth and maturity in you? While none of us enjoys hardship or trials, and we certainly don’t wish them for our children, God uses difficulties in our life for our good, to produce mature, responsible, and compassionate adults. Some of the wisest, kindest, most patient and compassionate people I know, are people who have suffered greatly, persevering through trials of many kinds.

Similarly, Romans 5:3-4 says, “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” So perseverance through trials also develops character, and character, hope!

I wish I had allowed my children to face and persevere through trials more often, rather than rescuing them. Of course, no parent enjoys seeing their child suffer, and this is why we sometimes tried to shield our children from trials and/or interfered with natural consequences of our children’s actions or behavior. And especially if it wasn’t their fault, we swooped in to rescue them.

I have discovered in recent years two excellent, sensible, and truth-based resources for raising children: John Rosemond, author of Parenting by the Book, as well as many other books on parenting, and Love and Logic.  Here is how a recent article from Love and Logic describes the effects of rescuing children (from their Insider’s Club newsletter from July 27):

  • It is appropriate for parents to rescue children when life and limb is in danger. Also, occasionally, when their youngsters aren’t demanding it, appreciate the help, and don’t make a habit of needing to be rescued. I like this. This is something I sometimes got right. If I sensed my children thought I owed it to them to rescue them, I would not. I tended to help on occasion when I could see they realized it wasn’t my responsibility to do so, and it was appreciated. Then they received it as a gift of grace rather than payment for a debt.
  • When you hover and rescue, you send a message to your child that they are weak and are not capable of solving the problem.  When I was a little girl, I remember saying, “I can do it myself!” And often, my mom would let me struggle through tying my shoe or other activities, allowing me to develop independence and confidence in my ability. With my own children, I too often, sadly, did it myself rather than waiting patiently for them, because it was faster.
  • Kids love and respect adults who are willing to set and enforce healthy limits. Having a good long-term relationship with them depends occasionally on allowing them to be very upset with us.  I still remember being angry with my mom for telling me “no” for something and going to my room and crying into my pillow, “I hate mommy!”. I still feel ashamed thinking about it. But my mom ignored me and never let on that it affected her. She stood firmly by her “no”. I never did that again. Many of my generation could not bear our child being upset with us, and too often, would relent, which sadly accomplishes the opposite of what we think. Our children lose respect for us when we can be manipulated by them.
  • Sincere empathy makes the difference. Sincere empathy allows us to hold our kids accountable for their poor decisions, and helps them own and solve the problems that they create without losing their love and respect. It allows us to discipline without feeling guilty.

I am a problem solver by nature. When my children had a problem, I wanted to solve it. Too often, I supplied the solution. How I wish I had this advice then! Sincere empathy such as “Wow, that’s tough” or “you are facing a really difficult situation” coupled with “what do you think you might do to solve it?” does two things. 1.) The empathy demonstrates our genuine care about the struggle and love for them through it,  and 2.) it puts the responsibility of the solution where it belongs, on them, while demonstrating our confidence in their ability to solve it. This develops the ability to come up with creative solutions to problem solve and, I think, creates safety and confidence talking through possible solutions with their parents, rather than peers.

So, I wish I had “helped” less. I wish I had not done for them, what they could do for themselves. I wish I had more often put the responsibility of solving problems back on my children and students without solving it for them.

I wish I had praised less, and encouraged more.

Let everyone be sure that he is doing his very best, for then he will have the personal satisfaction of work well done and won’t need to compare himself with someone else. Galatians 6:4 (The Living Bible)

I have this framed in my office. There is a lot to be said for the intrinsic reward of knowing you persevered and did well. What helps build perseverance and “stick-to-itiveness” in our children?  In another past newsletter from Love and Logic (from Feb. 17), Dr. Charles Fay describes the difference between praise and encouragement. Phrases like, “That is so great!” “Wow! You are really special!” “I like it so much when you…” “You are so bright” and “Super!” come from my generation’s self-esteem culture. Here are the effects of these words of praise (And I know this may be difficult to swallow! We all have done this for years!) according to Dr. Fay:

  • Praise addicts kids to praise. Many fear losing it if they try something difficult that they might not be able to do in a praiseworthy fashion. This contributed to creating our risk-averse children.
  • Many kids see praise as manipulative. As adults, most of us are wise enough to fear those who lather us with vague accolades.  As kids grow, they also recognize that the praise doesn’t match reality. So you might hear, “Of course you think that. You’re my mom.”
  • Praise creates cognitive dissonance. Kids who feel badly about themselves feel anxious because praise doesn’t fit their sense of self. To relieve the tension, they act out to confirm their view of self.
  • Praise distracts from what really builds self-esteem. Feeling good about ourselves does not come from being told that we are great. It comes from doing great things.

“Feeling good about ourselves does not come from being told that we are great. It comes from doing great things.” Isn’t that the truth? I find this is true with my teachers and staff as well. I often tell them they are “wonderful”, “awesome”, or “the best”. (Yes, I am still learning to break the old habit of “empty” praise.)  But what really has meaning for them is when I specifically notice something they have done and take the time to mention it or write them a personal note. Our children need this as well. So instead of empty praise, Dr. Fay recommends noticing and describing. Instead of “you’re awesome” he says to experiment with encouraging by saying, “I noticed that you ….” He also recommends resisting adding “and that’s great.” Simply notice and describe, especially noticing and describing effort and perseverance. “I noticed that you kept trying even though it was challenging.” He says, “There are few things more encouraging and motivating than seeing that we can overcome difficult tasks with a strong measure of grit. That’s how we really help kids feel good.”

When I was a little girl, my family camped a lot in Oklahoma. One day, we were “mountain climbing” in the Arbuckle Mountains. I was not enjoying it. I found it a bit frightening and was afraid of the critters we came across along the way. About the time we reached the top, a storm suddenly came up and we had to quickly get down the mountain. I became laser-focused on getting down quickly and safely. I remember my dad telling me that I was “a trooper” because of my changed attitude and focus, my perseverance. He noticed. That moment defined me for years to come. I am a trooper, someone who perseveres through trials.

This year, it is my goal to encourage my students and staff, and to empower them to persevere, problem solve, and discover and/or enjoy the personal satisfaction of a job well done.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:11