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Love your children—but don’t believe them, defend them or feel sorry for them

Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
Loving your child doesn’t mean she’s always right.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

One of the greatest challenges to busy parents is developing a loving, tough, sacrificial, intelligent approach to raising kids. Being a good parent has more to do with our own internal victories than eliciting specific behavior from our children. The parent that wrestles with the issues surrounding the three categories here will undergo significant transformation in parenting, and their children will benefit greatly. If these principles throw you a little, that’s probably a good start!

Don’t believe them

When I say not to believe them, what I mean is that a child’s version of an event or situation can never be the full truth. There are several reasons for that:

1) Kids lie all the time

My favorite example of parental denial here was, “My child wouldn’t lie.” Wow. A parent who believes that is already in trouble. To quote Darth Vader, “Search your heart—you know it to be true.”

In many ways, kids are innocent and delightful. At the same time, they are the center of their own little universes. They instinctively work to survive, shift blame, and divide-and-conquer. It’s just what they do. It’s not a reflection on us that our children are self-centered and selfish creatures. What is a reflection on us is how we handle it.

2) Kids don’t possess anything close to adult perspective

My son and my niece were playing together when he was two, she was three. Suddenly my son was crying and my niece wasn’t. My brother asked what happened, and her response was, “Josh got hit.” Now this was true, and while I remain impressed by the use of the passive voice to evade punishment, it was a truth that suggested a lie—that the hit might simply have come from outer space.

To get at the truth, parents must develop thoughtful and creative interrogation techniques. The first thing is to assume that you don’t know the real story, and that your child is capable of contributing only a portion of said story. We need to learn how to draw out the facts—and hope that the facts may eventually lead us to the truth.

We need to ask what happened from their point of view, and then begin the real questioning. Samples:

  • “Do you remember anything else that happened?”
  • “If I asked ___________ about what happened, what do you think they would say?”

Once you get a reasonable overview, try more personal questions:

  • “After such-and-such happened, what did you do that was right?”
  • “Did you do anything wrong?”
  • “What do you think should have happened?”

These can be great teaching moments for our children. We’re teaching them the incalculable lesson that truth is something to be diligently searched for. We’re letting them know early that their perspectives are wanted and respected, but are not to be confused with the overall truth of any situation. We are demonstrating that facts are indeed important, but they are not the whole truth either.

Don’t feel sorry for them

I grew up in a house of music. My mother was a fan of Judy Garland, and when Garland died, there were articles galore bemoaning her many misfortunes. Full of compassion, I shared with mom how sad her life was. Calmly but with understanding, she said, “It’s not what happens to you that counts—it’s how you respond to it.” I remember even now how taken aback I was. Where was the sympathy and hand-wringing I was seeing all around me? Mom had had a tough life—how could she not understand?

Of course, she did—all too well. She knew because she had many of the same challenges herself, and in some ways, had chosen more wisely. There was one area, however, where mom’s big heart got the best of her. She felt bad for us because we were from a broken home—and since she worked so hard to fill in every gap, she was acutely aware of the gaps that were there. The problem was that this kind of pity can easily be received as self-pity, and that is nothing but an unkindness to impart to a child.

Don’t get me wrong. Understanding is commendable. Showing compassion to folks—bravo. Having genuine empathy—a true and rare virtue. But “feeling sorry for” someone can encourage an attitude of entitlement in the pitied one, a feeling that someone, somehow, owes me something. It suggests that people and systems are going to make room for our deficiencies, which should in truth be a kindness granted by us to others at the same time that we resist presuming it for ourselves.

We know we’ve fallen into this trap with our kids when we find ourselves consistently giving excuses to ourselves or others as to why they cannot do something we would expect most children to do. Our responsibility as parents is to come alongside our children and help them discover the way out of their areas of insecurity. We need to be sensitive to their hurt, of course. But when doing the right thing clashes with their resistance or fear, we need to equip our children with the perspectives and strategies they need to work from weakness to strength.

Don’t defend them/take their side

My story again involves one of my own. There was a particular opportunity where I felt my child should have been chosen for a part in a musical. My child had the musical chops for the part. The chosen child had the musical chops, too.

I was ticked, and I began to assuage my child’s disappointment (and mine) by coating it with resentment and offense. When I went to bed, I wanted to lock down on my resentment and form a protective “bubble of offense” that would block the pain.

So I wrestled all night. But when I got up the next morning, the fight was over, the pain was lessened, and I knew that I was going to survive intact. If I hadn’t “fought the good fight,” a genuine friendship might have been permanently strained—one bad result.

The other bad result would have been to instruct my child—if only by example—that the way to handle disappointment is to get angry and stay angry. The people who made the decision had the right to do so. I had to side with them, not against my child, but against my child’s temptation to fall into self-pity, be angry, or form a judgment against people who had the authority to do what they did.

Your child’s disappointment should be important to you, and your child should know that you understand how hard the situation is for them. It’s where you go from that point that will make all the difference.

Raising kids isn’t for sissies, and kids don’t raise themselves. The hardest work isn’t the hours, the fatigue, or the exasperation. It’s the internal battle to act like the grown-ups we are and become the loving examples and leaders they need.

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