Teach kids how to count (on you)

April 25th, 2016

Life happens in moments. Many qualify as mundane; others rather exhilarating.

Once, while swimming in the ocean, a large wave knocked over my daughter, who was five years old at the time. The strong undertow held her underwater, draggedErintoward shore, and then began to pull her out to sea. As she slid past me toward open water, I looked down and saw my little girls’ eyes wide open looking back at me. I had the impression she was smiling. Adrenaline and instincts quickly engaged as I grabbed her tiny arm. I pulled her on my shoulder and in a shaky voice asked if she was okay. She said, and I will never forget these words, “I wasn’t scared. I knew you were here.” 

When life gets rough for the child(ren) in your life, will she have reason to feel unafraid because she knows she can count on you? Kids handle tough situations better when they know that in good times and bad, they can count on a parent or other close adult—perhaps a mentor or children’s ministry worker. But count on them for what? Let’s start with these four:

  1. To care. Everyone is aware of the demands of taking care of a newborn. We also know that the intensity with which a parent cares for a child typically declines as the child becomes increasingly self-sufficient. 

    In contrast, however, his or her need to be cared about remains at the same high level. For example, even though a kid might require less and less hands-on help to get ready for school, parents will be wise to maintain active interest in what happens during and after school—the times kids will face their greatest number of adolescent challenges, problems and pains. We parents know that our children must learn to face life’s tests, but they need not learn those lessons in isolation.

    “We may not be able to make their problems disappear, but even the promise of our presence and concern will help ease their pain,” say psychologists Dr. Tim Clinton & Dr. Gary Sibcy in Loving Your Child Too Much.
  2. To be present. Possibly the most powerful way to show you care about a child, and to establish yourself as someone he or she can count on, is by being there. Yes, our busy personal and work lives often make this very difficult. Yet children notice, and thrive, when mom or dad shows up. 

    It’s been thirty-five years, but I still remember how I felt, as an elementary basketball player, when I spotted my dad at my weekday games. He had to leave work early to be there; in fact, he was one of very few fathers in the stands. He didn’t cheer real loudly; my mom took care of that. But his presence in the gym clearly announced his reliability and support. 

    As does help with homework, family dinners, and program-free weekend hours. Psychologist Madeline Levine says, “Our children benefit more from our ability to be ‘present’ than they do from being rushed off to one more activity. Try to slow down. It is almost always in quiet, unpressured moments that kids reach inside and expose the most delicate parts of their developing selves.”
  3. To understand. A child frequently needs for a parent to set aside the temptation to instruct or give advice in favor of simply sharing in the moment at hand: a moment that offers a reason to cheer, to laugh, to cry—and always to listen. Your child will see these reactions as tangible expressions that she can count on you to understand the circumstances she is dealing with.

    My daughter and I enjoy simple date nights that usually involve dessert. One evening we spent our first hour laughing and chatting over nothing important. She has a wit that always makes me chuckle. Then Erinbegan to describe a difficult situation she faced with a friend, and soon tears filled her eyes as she shared her hurt feelings with me. I count that second hour as one of the most important I ever spent with my daughter, even though I probably spoke fewer than a dozen words, none of which were instructional. More importantly, I looked her in the eye and kept waving off the waitress—Erin needed someone to listen, distraction-free. On our drive home she said, “Thanks for talking with me. I feel lots better now.”

    Sometimes the words kids really need to hear are those they say to a parent willing to listen.
  4. To keep commitments. If you can agree to only one action item from this entire article, then I suggest you become great at keeping commitments to your child. Big or small. Short term or long term. Why? Because you can hit homeruns on the previous three points and still lose the game if you strike out on keeping your word.

    In a survey completed by 175 fourth- and fifth-grade children in a church where I worked, only forty percent rated their parents’ ability to keep commitments as “always.” More sobering still is the fact that twenty-four percent rated parents “never” or “sometimes” able to keep a commitment.

    This information illustrates a problem. Why? Because kids need the stability of believing they have parents they can rate “always” with respect to commitments. Even in a church, those parents seem to be tough to find. 

While no perfect parents, mentors, or children’s workers exist, today’s kids need at least one adult in their lives who sends the message “You can count on me.” And those words, words kids desperately need to hear from someone, are best communicated moment by moment through actions. Will you be the one?

Note: Portions of this column are excerpts from a chapter titled “You Can Count on Me” in the book Words Kids Need to Hear by David Staal. 

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