Supporting Your ChildIf Kids Don't Get Support From Their Parents, They Will Look Elsewhere
Darrell noticed that when his son, James, was on the Little League baseball field, he seemed disinterested and didn’t try very hard to catch the balls coming his way. In fact, James didn’t really engage in any of the sports Darrell signed him up for.
But when the family visited his grandma’s house, James’s eyes lit up. He seemed to come alive when his grandmother taught him simple songs on her piano. When she offered to give the piano to James’s family, Darrell accepted and signed his son up for piano lessons. Even though Darrell had dreamed of having a baseball player in the family, he realized his son’s gifts might lie elsewhere.
Tiana had been working on a school paper for a while when her mom said it was time for dinner.
“But I’m not done with this yet,” Tiana said.
When Andrea saw that her daughter had written seven pages for a one-page assignment, she taught Tiana about being “good enough.”
“Your report is great,” she told her daughter, “and it’s way more than the teacher expects. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
These stories are just two examples of the many ways that we can provide support for our children. Darrell provided the tools his son needed to grow in his area of interest, and Andrea guided her daughter away from her perfectionistic tendencies.
But exactly what do we mean by support? And how does it fit in with attachment, self-care, and loving discipline? If we compare our family to that of a sports team, attachment would be belonging to the team: you’re chosen. Self-care then would be making sure the coach (that’s us as parents) and all team members (our children) are healthy and taken care of. Loving discipline is the action of teaching, instructing, correcting, and asking for all the “do-overs” needed to learn and master the skills for living. Support is the coach providing the playbook and anything else the members of our team need in order to practice and eventually enter the game of life well prepared.
Support is the nitty-gritty part of parenting, day in, day out; it’s about supplying children with basic resources and creating a nurturing environment in which those resources can be put to the best use. It has to do with promoting the development of a child’s unique personhood or identity, fostering her ability to think, and providing her with the skills and tools she’s going to need in later life. Support isn’t so much concerned with protecting your child or changing her circumstances as it is with equipping her to get by in the world, come what may.
Why Does It Matter?
There’s a good reason for us to think very carefully about how we’re going to provide healthy parental and family support for our children. Kids who have the strength and confidence to go the distance and weather the storms of life are those who know by experience what it means to be loved and cherished for who they are. Everyone needs relational support, and if our kids don’t get it from us, they’re likely to look for it someplace else. If you aren’t available to help your child work through his feelings when he hits an emotional snag, he’ll almost certainly find someone else to meet that need, whether on the schoolyard or in an online chat room. You’d be well advised to step in first.
A Recipe for Support
What does it mean to come alongside our kids with the kind of support they really need? There’s a sense in which no one can answer that question but you. Every child is an individual. Some are extroverts, some introverts. Some like to run and shout and play while others enjoy reading a book in a quiet, private place. And some learn best through hands-on, “I can do it myself” experiences.
If you want to know what it means to be a supportive parent, begin by becoming a student of each of your children. Find out what motivates each one and what gets them down. Learn what lights their fires and what throws them for a loop. Only then will you be in a position to stimulate your children’s unique talents and interests. That’s when you will have what it takes to soothe their special disappointments and hurts.
As you’re learning what makes each child tick, put together a support package designed to address the specific needs of each of them. When you do, make sure that it includes the following basic ingredients:
A Safe Environment
Children need a safe environment in which to learn, grow, and find out who they are. A safe home environment includes elements of both nurture (love, kindness, and acceptance) and structure (rules, regulations, and consequences).
A healthy home can serve as a kind of family lab where children have the freedom to experiment, dabble in new interests, and practice new skills. They need to be able to do all this with full assurance that they will always be loved and accepted, even when they fail. Remember that trial and error is how children learn. Remember too, that “hard is good.” Failure is basically a stepping-stone to greater awareness and understanding. When things don’t work out, make generous use of do-overs and extend grace.
Focus on the Family’s “Seven Traits of Effective Parenting” defines intentionality as the pursuit of authentic relationship with God and with other members of the family through discipline, balance, and family values. The key word here is pursuit. If you want to play a genuinely supportive role in your kids’ lives, you’re going to have to come up with a plan to make it happen. You’re going to have to chase it down. Solid, supportive relationships rarely develop by chance. Good coaches have specific plans for every practice day. Be intentional as a parent-coach too.
You can begin the supportive process by engaging with your kids at every available moment. Be present and available. Model good self-care. Come up with creative ways to get the entire family involved in fun activities. This will allow for healthy family connections and lay a foundation for your child’s development as a healthy individual. It’s practice
time for your kids to learn how to communicate effectively, navigate emotions, and model appropriate behavior.
When you know where your kids’ strengths lie and what they enjoy doing most—whether it’s skateboarding, playing a musical instrument, drawing, painting, building things, or something else—do everything you can (without going broke) to supply them with the materials, tools, and equipment they need to pursue these interests. Do you need to provide a sewing machine or a guitar, art supplies or woodworking tools? If you have some expertise in any of these areas, offer them a few tricks of the trade as opportunities arise. If they play soccer, go to their games and cheer them on, and stay off your cell phone. Let them know that you believe in them and that you’re on their team.
Encourage your kids to take positive steps in the direction of increasing independence. Teach them how to stand up for themselves. At the same time, let them know that you’ll always have their backs, whatever happens. Practice drive-by or drop-and-go support by giving them quick hugs or brief words of encouragement. Tell them, “Love ya!” or “I believe in you!” as they pass you on their way out the door.
In all of your interactions with your children, make a conscious effort to model honesty, integrity, authenticity, and vulnerability. Ask them open-ended questions about their day. Inquire about their friends and their interests. Practice the art of being a good listener. Try to be available to enter into conversation whenever they want to talk (during the teen years this might mean staying up until 1:00 a.m.). Open communication is the thing that will give your kids the freedom they need to be real with you when times get tough.
Teach the value of commitment, follow-through, and dedication by gently urging your kids to see projects through to the end. Help them develop endurance and patience by discouraging a quitter mentality.
Model and communicate your own commitment to your family and the tasks God has called you to.
Conflict is going to happen in families. It’s how you respond that matters. Model healthy conflict resolution for your kids by first learning to fight fair in your marriage. Show them how to handle conflict with intentionality, patience, and grace.
Effective crisis management is something you have to nail down for yourself before you can pass it along to your children. This might involve a process of careful self-examination. Is your faith such that you can weather the strongest of storms, or do you cower under the slightest pressure? If you struggle with crisis, your children will probably react to trials in the same way. On the other hand, if you handle problems in a calm, honest, confident way, they’ll learn from your example that God can be trusted even in the darkest of times.
A Support Network
Remember that the best parents in the world can’t go it alone. Your children need your support, but they also need the support of other people. So make a conscious effort to pull in reinforcements wherever and whenever you can. Get your kids involved in a strong church youth group and encourage them to form lasting relationships with other solid, healthy adults: teachers, pastors, youth leaders, coaches, mentors, aunts, uncles, and anyone else you can think of.
Make family devotions and prayer a regular part of life in your household. Talk about your relationship with the Lord. This will lay the foundation for children to establish their own personal faith-relationships with God.
Take a Breath
If you feel like you’re drinking from a fire hose after reading all this information, take a deep breath. We don’t expect you to do it all or do it perfectly. (Do you recognize a theme here?) The point is to zero in on what are the most necessary, practical things to do as a parent-coach and then do those things purposefully and intentionally. At the same time, remember that you have your own Coach: God is on your side, ready to give you wisdom day by day as you raise your children.
As you try your best to be a supportive coach to your children, keep in mind that they are seeking identity. They want to know who they are and what they can handle in this big, exciting, and sometimes threatening world. Nowadays we’re seeing too many kids abandon that quest before they’ve even had a chance to get started. A child who gets the support she needs from beginning of her childhood to the end of her growing years won’t be as tempted to make that tragic mistake. That child will be equipped and prepared to face the challenges of life without bending to pressure or adversity.
You can use the following Seven Traits of Effective Parenting to remind yourself of what’s most important as you prepare your child for the ups and downs of life.
Focus on the Family Broadcast: Supporting Your Kids When Life is Tough
Dr. Kevin Leman offers parents practical advice for helping their kids process, learn from and rise above life’s difficult challenges.
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