My kid had been caught red-handed. On camera, but also by the evidence spilling out of his bedroom. Literally…spilling out of his bedroom. If someone had rounded the corner and punched us square in the face, we would have been less shocked. And you better believe we saw red. Not only were we angry, but embarrassed, ashamed, and bewildered. This was not acceptable at all.
I was on a trip out West, so Kristin and I talked strategy once I made it to my hotel. We debated. We discussed. We wrestled over our next move. To be honest, we both wanted to lose it with our kid. We were so angry over this deplorable choice. This wasn’t how he was raised, we contended. All I wanted to do was look him square in the face and demand, “What were you thinking!?” Our instinct was to lecture. Our knee-jerk emotion was to shame.
But we knew one thing for sure….NONE of this would work. Period.
Well, for starters, think about a time you were shamed growing up. How did you feel? Ashamed? Probably. Embarrassed? Yep. Did those feelings make you want to do better? Nope. Me either. Second, we’ve discovered that deep within our children is a voice that constantly tells them they’re a failure. It repeatedly whispers that they’re broken and unfixable. That, my friends, is the voice of trauma. This couldn’t be further from the truth, of course. With all of our heart, we believe our children are beautiful, and bright, and talented, and perfectly designed. We’re constantly trying to speak this truth louder than the voice of trauma. But when we shame, or lecture we reinforce what the voice of trauma tells our kids.
What do we do, then?
If shaming doesn’t work, if lecturing is ineffective, how do we respond when our child blows it? How do we correct and teach our children? Is there a different way? I believe so. It’s a paradigm shift. It begins by understanding a few new principles…
- Compassion over Contempt. You want to lose it. I know. Me too. There have been so many times where I have, in fact. After all, we’ve been over this with them haven’t we? We’ve laid out the guidelines, reinforced the boundaries, and clearly illustrated consequences for crossed boundaries. Yet here we are. They’ve blown it. The temptation is to scorn, lecture, and shame because these tactics get a reaction. And isn’t a reaction what we’re going for? Doesn’t that reassure us that we’re getting through? Maybe. But at what cost? Our kiddos already have it embedded in their minds that they’re failures…they’re not good enough, not wanted, nor worthy of love. Our contempt for them when they make a mistake reinforces this. It’s time to adjust our approach and let compassion lead the way. This is not to say we don’t reinforce a consequence, or allow natural consequences to run point when they’ve crossed a boundary, but can we do this with compassion and not contempt? I think so. There are more fingers pointing at me than you, trust me.
- Observance over Instruction. We often drill down so heavily on being our kid’s instructor that our view becomes clouded to the most important aspect of our children: their heart. How often do we make winning an argument our goal? Traditionally speaking, this is what we’re taught as parents. Because we’re in control, because we’re an authority figure, because we’re…well…a parent! But what if we’ve been aiming at the wrong target? What if, instead of fighting to win the argument, we fight to win our kid’s heart? Orange Leader, Reggie Joiner once said this- “We don’t fight to win the argument, we fight to win the heart. You can can win the argument but lose the heart.” Truth! But there’s an added layer to this for those of us who are foster or adoptive parents. Our kid’s hearts have been broken before. The trauma they’ve endured has left them in an almost permanent defense mode. They’ve taught themselves to do something when adults start lecturing- shut down. Cocoon. Hide. You name it. Our shaming never makes it through the outer defense system they’ve built around their heart. We teach them nothing when we do this. Ah, but stopping, and observing their heart, and asking ourselves some bigger questions, and delighting in who they are before we try to teach them wins their heart. Isn’t that more important than winning an argument, or proving a point?
We don’t fight to win the argument, we fight to win the heart. You can can win the argument but lose the heart. ~ @reggiejoiner
- Walking With Instead Of Over. What if we were to make an active choice as parents to walk next to our children as they learn to live in-spite of their traumatic pasts, instead of walking over them in attempt to gain compliance? What if we showed them instead of told them? This is two-fold. First, the old adage “Do as I say, not as I do,” needs to be buried. Can we all agree on this? It’s a toxic way to parent whether you’re a traditional, foster, or adoptive parent. If we want our children to learn how to live the best life possible, we must teach by example. And I believe the best way to do this is by actively walking with our kids, not over them, especially when they’ve made mistakes. We must be careful to not bulldoze our children in attempt to contain or control. Even if they comply, it’s not teaching them anything better. It’s just behavior modification, not heart-growth.
- ‘I Love You!’ over ‘How Could You?’ Barking How Could You, or What Were You Thinking, tends to be the ultimate shame. Why? It’s simple: our kids don’t know the answer to this question. They probably never will. If your kiddo is anything like mine, he or she doesn’t know because the part of their brain responsible for logic and reasoning is damaged or dormant due to trauma. My child suffers from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder which means his executive functioning skills in the pre-frontal cortex of his brain is permanently damaged from alcohol exposure in-utero. He can’t answer a question like ‘How could you?’ or ‘What were you thinking?’ or ‘Why would you do such a thing?’ He doesn’t know why, or how. I used to think he was lying. And then I discovered the truth of trauma and what it does to the brain. Not only did my mind change, but my heart did as well. When it comes to love, you can use words for this, but your actions will speak way louder. Ask yourself: “When my child blows it, how do I respond?” Is your reaction to overreact, lecture, or shame? Or is it to reinforce the love you have for your child first and foremost? Again, as I said earlier, we crave reaction in order to know we’re getting through. But is that really the most important thing? Perhaps it’s that our children know we love them no matter what (even if they’ve messed up!).
I know what you’re thinking- this sounds passive. It sounds like a cop-out. Trust me friend….it’s the furthest from it. Actively choosing to take a different approach from the way you were taught, or the way you feel like responding, takes incredible engagement. As my good friend Jason Morriss reminded every dad in attendance at our recent Road Trip for Foster and Adoptive Dads, “Choosing not to shame, or instruct, or correct, but rather observe, delight in, and love your child with no strings attached is as active-parenting as it gets.”
And I can tell you personally….it’s a slam dunk winner for foster and adoptive parents.
Shaming our children when they blow it just doesn’t work. It reinforces what they already believe about themselves. Remember- because of where they’ve come from, what they’ve gone through, and how they cope when things get tense or overwhelming, shame is just another dark passenger they carry with them always. Observing, delighting, compassion, and love on the other hand, works to lay that dark passenger to rest and build trust and connection in it’s place.
Have you struggled through this with your kiddo? Share your story with us in the comment section below.