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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Correcting Children

Being a parent has taught me an awful lot about personal accountability. I know, it sounds rather odd to imagine that children could teach their parents much of anything. But I swear that's how it happens. It has been especially true in our case.

My wife and I adopted all of our children. The first two were siblings and we adopted them when they were 7 and 9 years old (respectively). Now the greatest challenge in that relationship dynamic was simply a matter of experience. They already knew how to be children; they'd had 7 and 9 years worth of respective experience at that. But ... we did not know how to be parents! We had absolutely no experience with that. So the kids had the upper hand from the very beginning.

Through the years, as we caught up with them in the wisdom-of-our-roles department, we would seek to instill a sense of responsibility into our children. We tried to teach them good values, a strong work ethic and personal accountability. But we found that their responses were often less than comforting to a concerned parent. Often they didn't appreciate the splendor of our wisdom - even as teens and young adults. Eventually, they did come around and now admit that we've been very wise parents through the years. But for many, many years, that was not the case!

Something that we learned early on was that there are appropriate and inappropriate responses to someone pointing out the error of your ways. The Bible says that a strong rebuke from a holy brother (or sister) in Christ is a blessing. It says the loving guidance of a parent is not only a blessing but a great responsibility for the parent. Still, such guidance is not always welcome.

"So, why did you shoot pencils with rubber bands into the ceiling fan?"
"Why did you stick your tongue into the oscillating fan on your desk?"
"Why did you use straight bleach to clean a stain on the carpet?"
"Why did you put the lawn furniture into the swimming pool?"
"Why did you punch holes in soda cans, shake them up and spray the ceiling with soda?"

This is just a sampling of the questions we've found ourselves asking our children. As amusing as the questions might be now, the answers to such questions have always intrigued us the most.

"You didn't tell me I couldn't do that."
"I didn't think it would be a problem."

Over the years, such answers seemed to run together to form something of a conglomerate answer that went something like this: "It's not my fault. I didn't know. You didn't tell me. It's Andy's fault. Nancy made me do it." And there it was, the most complete blaming answer one could ever have. It covers the whole universe of options - from misguidance to ignorance. Simply put, it is now possible to entirely deflect personal responsibility by blaming others, circumstances or even ignorance itself.

Of course, there is an entirely different line of answers that come with questions of personal responsibility. This line can vary widely, but it always starts with the simple phrase, "I was just ..." I've learned over the years that it does not matter one iota what words follow that phrase - when it comes to personal accountability - they will be lame. Simply put, there is no way a good response to correction can start with "I was just ..." It is quite impossible for those words to be followed with anything that a parent will find acceptable!

But one of my personal favorites, popularly used by one of my children now, is the ever present, "I know."

"You need to finish your homework before you watch any TV."
"The lawn has to be mowed before we go to the mall."
"I'm not driving you to the game if you don't clean your room."
"Finish your dinner before you start asking for dessert."
"Wash your hands before you set the table."
"Put the tools away when you are finished fixing your bike."

Such questions are most often met with that simple, cavalier retort, "I know." Of course, it is not a true statement. After all, if the child did know, the parent would not be telling them. So I suspect these two simple words can be translated into something more akin to "Bite me" or "Buzz off." Now, no self-respecting teen-ager would ever admit to mouthing off to the parent like that. So they hide behind the passive-aggressive "I know" and walk off.

Being a parent has its rewards and its challenges, to be sure. But I have learned that as the kids get older, we have to teach them the hidden meanings in these simple phrases that look pretty innocuous on the surface. They need to be taught that a lack of personal responsibility in a response casts serious doubt over their own credibility. And if they don't learn it, they will forever be frustrated with the fact that, "You never trust me!"

So it was in a recent conversation with my son, when I had to explain to him that the inflections in his voice that can make or break a simple sentence. For example, "I'm sorry," when accompanied by an attitude and an eye roll becomes completely empty. He seemed fascinated by this revelation. He conceded that he had never imagined such a thing as words not having the same meaning based on how they're said.

And in that moment, I began to realize that there is hope for my children to all one day marvel at the splendor of my wisdom. Such are the lessons that children teach their parents!

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