On Training Children

Since hearing a talk on the importance of fathering during a parenting conference, I realized the impact of my work as a child care worker, and my role as a father to my daughter. Many of you are in a position of authority over a child- as a parent, teachers, social worker, etc. I humbly offer my insights into the task of training children. I don’t claim to be perfect. I am still growing in my role and will continue to grow in the art of child rearing. I will start by talking about the nature of authority.

Nature of Authority

What is our role in the lives of the children under our care? Our role is to lead children in their life journey. We lead them with a vision in mind. As a Christian, I believe that the proper vision is towards godly character or Christ likeness. A Christian authority should care for God's standards that he will guide children towards that standard. In this way, he multiplies the image of God. The Christian authority should display love for God's standards, balanced with gentleness, understanding, and mercy.

The main purpose of this paper is not to delineate the specifics of that vision but to offer insights into the process of leading children in their life journey. I am leaving it up to the person in authority over children to delineate their vision for children. Usually, a child has multiple authorities over him. If you are one of those multiple authorities, you will need to cooperate with the other authorities as much as possible.

There are two pitfalls that face the person in authority. The first pitfall is leniency. If your tendency is towards leniency, it is important to remember that the vision you have for your children is very important. That vision is to be carried out and not compromised. For example, if your vision for your children is that they will be respectful, then blatant disrespect, like cursing those they don’t like or grabbing a toy from another child, should be confronted. You cannot afford to be wishy-washy in leading your children to your vision because without vision, your children will be subject to the whims of others or to their own destructive tendencies.

The second pitfall is being overbearing. If your tendency is towards being overbearing, it is important to separate what is essential to your vision and what is not. For example, your vision may be that your children be respectful. You may have a child who likes to joke around. I believe that to forbid this child to joke around would be wrong. The parent (from this point on, the adult in authority will be called parent for convenience) has to coach this child when it is appropriate to joke around and when it is not appropriate. This leads me to a discussion on our attitude towards children.

Attitude towards children

Here are some truths about children- they need to be active, they like to play, they usually want to be helpful, and they are interactive. Therefore, we need to be patient with their struggle with sitting still and listening, and make a commitment to be interesting and to show interest in them. We build relationships with children by playing (catching ball, dancing, etc.) with them, and also working with them. It is good to talk with children but play is the best way to connect with their world. About talking, we need to be patient for children to open up, we cannot just force them to be responsive to us. To play well with children, it is helpful to be connected to your inner child, the part of you that is carefree. We build relationships also by working with children, giving them life skills that build confidence and building in them a good work ethic. The building of relationships is important because relationship is the bond that effectively guides people. People are predisposed to listen to those they have a relationship with.

As adults, we sometimes want to force children into a desired mold (have the same interests as us, be quiet whenever we want them to be, etc.). We need to appreciate who they are (interests, personalities) and not force them to a desired mold. As far us our children not conforming to our vision for them, we must be patient. Remember, ultimately we can’t change our children, but God using our discipline, their experiences, etc. shapes them. I believe that one cause of abusiveness towards children is the desire to make children change immediately, not honoring the process it takes to make lasting change. We are not in complete control of our children but we are still responsible for leading our children. Talking about leading children, let us now discuss how we are to communicate our expectations.

Communicating expectations

We should not treat a child in a way that we would not treat an adult. That means that when we communicate our expectations, we should be respectful (no yelling or sarcasm). If possible, we should assure the child that there is a good purpose for the expectation (to be helpful or for some other good outcome), explaining it if appropriate. When quick compliance is necessary, we may discuss the purpose for the expectation later. Some children, like those with ADHD, get overwhelmed and we may need expectations to be communicated step by step. For example, instead of saying “clean your room”, you can supervise while saying “clear the floor, fix your bed, etc.” Sometimes we may have to help children accomplish our expectations. If we expect children to clean their rooms, we may have to help them with that task with a view to have them do the task themselves. We need to see ourselves as children’s helpers even though we are the ones who communicate expectations.

Expectations should, as much as possible, not be presented in negative way. For example, instead of telling a child not to touch a certain breakable object, try to redirect him to another interesting object or activity. The purpose is to not be in a position where you are just telling a child “no”. That is frustrating to a child and does not build relationship. The goal is to be able to communicate expectations while maintaining relationship.

Although we should treat children respectfully, we still need to be firm. We need to make sure that the task is accomplished, not backing down because of a child’s tantrums. To back down would teach the child that he can get you to drop your expectations, which would be detrimental to the authority of the parent. This leads us to the issue of what to do with a child’s unwillingness to accomplish a task. The first step is to explore what is behind that unwillingness to do a task. Obviously, if it is a dangerous situation (a child keeps on running into the street thereby exposing himself to danger), we may have to physically remove a child from danger without waiting for his compliance.

We should see the “no” answer as the tip of an iceberg. It is not helpful to just brand the child as a rebellious person. I see basically two reasons that a child says “no” to an expectation. The first reason could be that a child has some trauma associated with hearing an expectation. Here are a few possibilities.

Another reason a child may say “no” to an expectation is the child’s desire for control, part of his sinful nature. Children also want control over their lives. The more freedom they experience, this desire for control increases. That increase in freedom coincides with growth in strength- both physically and emotionally. That is why as a child grows older, we must move more towards more of a mentoring role and less of an enforcer role. The child needs to experience the world more and hopefully he embraces our guidance, which we have less and less power to enforce.

The two year old child wants to touch an electric outlet and your stopping her triggers a tantrum. The teenager runs away because you told her not to go somewhere. These are examples of a power struggle, the adult in authority will do almost anything to get a child to do what he wants, and the child will do almost anything to get an adult to let her do what she wants. To avoid power struggles, a clear limit will have to be made by giving the child a choice to do what he is expected, or a clear consequence will be given. Then this consequence must be enforced. To not follow through is detrimental to the training of the child. This leads us to a discussion of consequences.

Giving proper consequences

As we think about consequences, we must remember that discipline must be given in the context of love. The parent must assure the child that the discipline is ultimately for his good. If discipline and love are not connected, then the child may grow up resenting authority. The child may develop a me vs. authority complex, where authority is seen as an enemy that prevents him from fulfilling his potential. Children growing up with this attitude are a detriment to society because they may develop an attitude of defiance rather than cooperation.

A consequence can be characterized as natural, logical, or artificial. A natural consequence is one that just happens without the intervention of the one in authority. A natural consequence inevitably happens. An example is that if a child is constantly late for his school bus, he might be required to walk to school. The parent does not have to intervene, they just allow the child suffer the inevitable consequence of not being ready for school on time.

A logical consequence is one in which the parent intervenes to apply the consequence. A logical consequence should be related to the offense as much as possible. This would give a child an approximate taste of how life works. To ground a child for stealing is a logical consequence, but it could be argued that it is not related to the offense, unless the parents just want to give the child a taste of how it is to be in jail. To make the child apologize and make restitution for what he stole is also a logical consequence, which I believe is more appropriate for the specific offense. The key to a logical consequence is that it should be related to the offense.

The third kind of consequence is an artificial consequence. Money is an artificial consequence for working. An artificial consequence uses incentives, and those incentives may be given directly for the desired behavior or earned through some kind of point system. The points earned could be tied to certain privileges or to an object like candy. For example, if a child struggles with cleaning his room, the child could be encouraged to earn points (tokens, stars, etc.) by cleaning his room. A certain amount of points could earn the child candy or the privelege to stay up later. An artificial consequence helps a child understand a life lesson that good things happen when we do right things, and bad things happen when we do bad things. We reap what we sow.

We must be careful in using artificial consequences. We may raise children who would only do the right things because a reward (or loss of reward) is expected. When rewards (or loss of reward) are not present, then they would not feel motivated to do the right things. Children ultimately must do the right things (do their chores, apologize) because their hearts have been trained to seek what is right. Ultimately, right and wrong must be taught. Parents must talk to children about what is right and wrong. Parents must encourage children to do the right things. Parents must also be a good example to their children, showing them the right way to live, and humbly asking for forgiveness for the wrong things they do. If parents don’t teach their children what is right and wrong, then children will do what is right in their own eyes, and what is right in their eyes could destroy them. God can intervene and make the hearts of our children right. However, the normal means by which God shapes the hearts of our children is through parents and other persons in authority over them.

Important training points for life

There are three general areas in which we need to help our children grow. Adults can act as coaches, guiding them in these areas.

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