Thursday, August 4, 2011

Keeping Up Appearances

I screwed up.  I just caught myself in the middle of a lecture trying to pressure my child to change his behavior, using motivation that I have to admit was fundamentally wrong.  It's scary, really, how we can shape a child's perception of themselves and the world around them with just a few words.

Let me rewind... This is the second day of VBS (Vacation Bible School) for my kids this summer - and I have to admit, I've been quite giddy with the opportunity to drop my children off at the doorstep of a neighborhood church where they can spend the morning happily playing games, singing songs, and learning about Jesus.  (They even give them a snack!)  VBS was a part of my childhood, and I well remember the exciting mornings of music, games, drama and crafts... a pleasant distraction from the lull of summer!  So I was eagerly anticipating this first week in August which would provide me with my own mini-vacation - a rare chance to have a week of mornings to myself (once my youngest is down for his nap).  As a homeschooling mom, I am almost never alone, and I'm not complaining, but I sure do appreciate VBS week!!!!

This morning I promptly arrived at the church, signed in my children and let the elementary-aged children race off, while I walked the preschool kids to their classroom.  Within minutes, I was freed (temporarily) of my kids, and walked with happy, lightened steps to my van.  Suddenly, I heard my eldest child's voice calling to me, to tell me that her brother was fooling around and trying to run away from his teacher.  My nostrils flared and my eyes bugged out a little.  All I ask is a quiet couple of hours... is it too much to ask for???  I fumed silently.

The skip in my step deflated to a businesslike stomp as I charged into the building, adorned with the "you-better-shape-up-or-else" expression on my face.  The defendant was sitting guiltily on a chair on the side of the room, seemingly confined to a time-out.

Quickly, methodically and expertly I cross-examined him, finding that indeed his behavior was erroneous.  Then began the manipulative 'mother-speak' in which I chided him to consider the following:  "What will people think of you when you act like a 'crazy' kid?"

To be brutally honest, I was thinking more along the lines of: What will people think of us, the parents?  Because like it or not, my kids' behavior creates an impression and reflects on my parenting abilities.  Not only that, but my kids have the habit of dropping the line: "I'm a pastor's kid..." as if it is an exclusive V.I.P. pass that will get them special treatment.  (Apparently they haven't come to the same revelation that I have regarding titles... the title we hold is far more about responsibility than it is about privilege!)

It was in the middle of this rant about what others would think of him, when I felt conviction prick my heart and I hearkened to the ominous warning I felt in my gut.  Suddenly I heard what I was saying; heard how I was trying to motivate my child and pressure him on the basis of appearances, not what really matters.  Basically, I was trying to motivate my kid with a form of peer-pressure and fitting in, with concern solely focused on the expectations of those he "should" try to impress.

I can remember growing up with an immense respect for my father and his status in our community, church and his workplace.  He was (and still is) a man who people knew to be honest and a hard worker.  He was dependable.  And he had good kids.  That was part of the package.  I didn't want to soil his reputation.  I liked the kind of man my father was, and I liked that people esteemed him.  However, there is a downside to all of this.  When appearances become the icon of success, it is possible for the heart to be ignored and neglected.

How then, do I motivate my children to obey?  How do I encourage good behavior; respectable, likable behavior?  It comes back to the issue of the moral fabric I weave into my family and the simple truth that Jesus used in response to the Pharisees when they tried to stump him by asking their hard-hearted, legalistic question - What is the most important commandment?  Jesus said: "Love the Lord your God...and love your neighbor as yourself."

This is not an issue of "acting good" so that people will think well of my child and subsequently think well of me.  If all that matters is "fitting in", then what about when negative peer pressure comes down the path?  Will my child care more about what his friends think about him than about doing the right thing?   I want my children to learn to think with their hearts, drawing their motivation from what they know in their heart is the right thing to do.  What really matters today is that my kid was being a pain in the butt to his teacher, and that was both unkind and selfish.  I changed my whole lecturing process in that instant of revelation, and asked my son:  "Are you being kind to your teacher by being a crazy kid?"

With that question, I'm hoping that my son was able to put himself in his leader's shoes.  Suddenly it was about caring for someone else - it was about showing love and respect.  Having dealt with the underlying motive, I asked my son what he should "do about it" and how he should make things right.  He admitted that he should apologize and sat quietly for a few moments before remorsefully walking over to his teacher and saying "sorry".  In that moment, I knew a lesson was learned.  It wasn't easy for him to walk over and "make things right" with the cool, teenage guy who was his leader.  I could tell that he looked up to him, and that admitting he was wrong was a humbling act.  Yet, I felt it was entirely necessary.

The real problem was my son's selfish behavior, and trying to curb my child's actions on the basis of appearance would only justify further selfishness.  Simply being concerned about "my appearance, my reputation and my standing" shows a firm grasp on what matters the most: ME!  With the focus turned outward onto how the behavior affected his leader, the emphasis was placed on the value of consideration and kindness.

It's not always easy to determine how to best teach and motivate our kids.  More often than not, we just want to make the bad behavior stop and will use whatever means necessary.  Repetition, bribing, threatening and lecturing are common tools in a parent's behavior modification strategy, and I'll be the first to admit that I don't always do the right thing regarding kids.  My initial response is usually based out of a sense of urgency - I just want it to stop!  My perspective, however, should be the long-term and should consider the state of my child's heart; equipping them with character and a healthy attitude.

There was a surprise for me when I returned to pick up my kids at lunchtime.  I went to sign out my son, and one of his teachers said to him "Are you going to tell your mom everything you did today?"

He looked up, startled and definitely worried and said slowly "What do you mean?"

She smiled, a look of puzzlement on her face and exclaimed: "Tell her how you were sharing!"

A look of relief crossed over my son's face and he shrugged his shoulders, "I was helping in class, and giving out the crafts..."

My concern immediately lifted, and my heart was overjoyed to know that my child was doing what mattered - he was being kind and loving to others; he was putting others first!  "That's great!"  I told him sincerely, with a smile on my face.  "It sounds like you were being very kind."

It's amazing how over the course of a couple hours we came full circle... Life's lessons seem to move in fast-forward when it comes to our kids.   I'm so thankful for my children's tender, teachable hearts and the joy that they bring to me as a parent.  I'm also thankful for how much they teach me, and I know I'll be more aware of what motivates me when I relate to others.  It's not about keeping up appearances.  It's what's inside that counts - it's all about relationship and what comes from the heart.

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