My son had made one of those decisions that brought out my urge to face plant right in my palm. I didn’t do this in front of him, of course, but as a mom, sometimes I wish I could take remote control of his life. The idea of me overriding him (even when he’s making lousy choices) would be his definition of a day in hell.
Trying to be as gracious and thoughtful as I could, I asked him some questions, hoping I would lead him into just a tad of self-reflection. He agreed he had chosen poorly and acknowledged some things I hoped he would. His face revealed something concerning. What message had he just taken in? Was he hearing my heart of love and hope for him?
Taking a Risk
Later that night, as he lay on the couch reading a book, I went and sat down next to him. I asked him a difficult question. It wasn’t so hard for him as it was for me. “What is the number one message you get from me these days?” He paused. “I don’t know, Mom.” “Yes, I think you do. What do you think most of my conversations, the way I treat you, and the thoughts I have about you convey?” He paused again, looked down and said, “That I’m messing up.”
I let his words sit there. Then I asked, “Really?” “I was hoping it was how deeply you are loved.” He said, “Well, that. Yeah. That’s a big one too.” I pondered his response for the next few days. No mom wants to hear their child say the main thing they hear is “you are messing up.” I’m not one to shy away when my children let me know I’m missing the mark. I want to improve as a mom. Even if my heart is in the right place, if they aren’t hearing me, or my intention is misconstrued, I want to recalibrate.
As I continued to pray and think about our interaction, I started to see something I hadn’t at first. My son is actually getting a two-layered message from me, and it’s not all that bad. If you put the two pieces together, he knows he’s loved while he’s messing up. You really can’t beat that.
Apparently, I’m a Glutton for Punishment
I decided I ought to approach my younger son as well. He has been feeling his oats lately. Of our two boys, my youngest is by far the more naturally compliant. He is prone to be reasonable and extremely thoughtful. The recent slide into more disrespect and his frequent delay in doing what is asked of him is not his normal M.O.
I sat with him a few days after speaking with my oldest son. I asked, “What message do you think I’m giving you most these days?” He said, “You mean a text message?” (Nine-year-olds are literal thinkers!) I said, “No, I mean like something I’m telling you a lot. The thing I say with my words and my actions about you.” He said, “Oh, I don’t know. I guess you tell me I need to be a better listener to you and dad.”
I sure have had to talk with him about the way he says things lately. One more than one occasion I have said, “Could you try a new way of saying that, please?” Still, it concerned me that this felt like my overarching message. I asked him, “Do you get the message that you are loved no matter what?” He said, “Oh, yeah, sure. I do.”
The Negative and the Positive
My graduate degree doesn’t always give me much in terms of practical application. In this case, I remembered the work of the Nobel Prize winning scientist, Daniel Kahneman, who said our brains gravitated to negative thoughts on about a 5:1 ratio. That means it takes about five times the frequency and intensity of a positive message to match one expression of something negative.
In a nutshell, if we are correcting our kids, pointing out their need to grow (even if we do this in a gracious manner) they will hear us loud and clear. When we balance that with an equal message of affirmation of love, that positive message can get a bit smothered or overshadowed.
So, Mama, double up (actually make it 5:1) on your loving actions and comments when you have to talk about difficult character issues with your child. I’m not talking about padding the truth or softening the blow so that they never have to face the hard truth of their sin or poor choices. I am saying, be sure you continue to express your love – out loud and often.
With both boys I was grateful to hear that they do know I love them. Not only have they received that message, they acknowledge the love of their dad and of God. They are able to contain the fact that they are loved alongside the fact that they have areas to work on in their personal growth. That’s huge.
Stray Hearts – Loved As Is
Far from feeling condemned, they feel called out and called up to something better. Love does that. God accepts us as we are, yet He doesn’t leave us where He finds us.
C. S. Lewis told this story of a man who found a stray dog. The dog was covered in burrs, had fleas, was dirty and knew no commands. Because the man loved the dog, he took him home. He combed out the burrs, treated the fleas, bathed the dog and went through the process of training him. The man never loved the dog more than the day he found him. The cleaning and training only made the dog more suitable for the man’s company.
As parents, we love our children. Our love doesn’t (or at least it shouldn’t) hinge on their behavior. We long to draw out what is best in each child. Our parenting includes helping them along in character formation.
We need to be so careful not to send the message that our love or approval depends on what they do or how they act. We may point out areas that need attention or habits that need to be broken or learned. It is crucial that they know our love deep down in their bones – a love as unconditional as is humanly possible.
How about you?
What messages are you sending your children?
Can you ask them to tell you what they think?
If you have very young children you could ask them to tell you what mommy thinks of them. If the answer is unnerving (as both of my boys’ answers initially were for me), sit with it. Allow God to show you ways you can more clearly convey the message that they are loved no matter what.
I’d love to support you in your motherhood. I’d also love to have you join Hearts Homeward so I can send you my weekly letter of encouragement and inspiration as well as including you in specials and freebies when I offer those. Would you give me the privilege of pouring into your motherhood?