A parent should be a thermostat, not a thermometer.
When my oldest daughter was about six, I let her take some pictures with my camera. That was the old days when they still used film that had to be developed!
When I got the pictures back I was shocked and dismayed by one she had taken of me. My expression was one of stress, worry, and disapproval. I looked at her like she might break something at any moment.
“Wow, I look worried in this picture,” I observed. She shrugged, “That’s just how you always look.”
Wow. Smack. Sad.
I gave her a big hug and told her I was sorry. We talked about it and she went on to inform me that I looked at her differently than I looked at the baby.
That started me thinking about the message I was sending her.
At school she was getting the message loud and clear that she was “bad”. No adult would actually say those words, but everyone knew they were exasperated by her and other kids had no trouble putting words to the label.
The picture showed me that I was also sending a message. It was a lack of love – that she was a big problem instead of a really great kid. I guess that comes naturally when you have a kid who wants to dance on the table, the chairs, and the couch – to stand on the kitchen counter to touch the ceiling, etc. And it’s understandable when I had to watch her like a hawk to prevent “helping” with the baby or running into the street.
But being a thermostat isn’t about doing what comes naturally. For me it was about intentionally looking at my daughter with love and approval as much as possible. It seemed strange that I would have to think about something like that, but over time it became natural again. (and she later took some good pictures of me)
As a result, it became an important exercise to periodically step back and look at things from my girls’ point of view – to consider what messages they were receiving from me. This was a priority for me because I believe that parents’ messages form the foundation of self-perception. The message needs to be carefully and intentionally crafted.
Call them what you want them to be.
Going a little deeper into messages, we need to be on the lookout for opportunities to name good qualities in our kids. I have noticed that when I say, “That took a lot of determination,” or, “I’m proud of how thoughtful you were of your sister just now,” they swell up a little bit and get a tiny twinkle in their eye. It is especially great when I know they only begrudgingly made the right choice. The praise seems to soften the resentment.
I was once very frustrated by a pattern of whining that was developing with our middle child. On the advice of a book I read, I started looking for opportunities to praise her for the mature way she handled setbacks and disappointments . . . and it worked! It was much more successful than the course I was on – telling her constantly to quit whining, often with a sentence like, “I am getting so tired of your constant whining! You need to learn to accept things the way they are!”
I would like to say that I am usually kind, loving, and encouraging, but this is actually one of my biggest struggles as a parent. It is too easy to become distracted and fall back into thermometer mode!
Hopefully this has lessened over the years, but I continue the effort and never give up . . . This verse helps me acknowledge my shortcomings without being trapped by them.
Philippians 3:12-14: Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
A good example is the best sermon.
Our messages grow out of our attitudes. When I judge myself harshly, I communicate harsh judgment to others (mostly my family). When I rest in the arms of grace, focused on the love of Christ – love, acceptance, and approval overflow to others.