Before I get to the topic for this month’s letter, I need to tell you that contributions to Family Talk hit the skids in February. After an encouraging year-end, we just fell off a cliff. There is no explanation for it, but maintaining a staff and staying on course becomes difficult when necessary funding suddenly becomes insufficient. We don’t carry a large cash reserve, even if we could, because we believe money given should go straight into ministry. For better or worse, that is the way we operate.
I don’t want to take your time to elaborate on our situation; just let it be said that if you can give us a lift at this time, we would certainly appreciate the support.
Having shared that need, I’ll get to what is on my mind. Did you notice that our radio and Internet programming last month was devoted to the subject of marriage? We chose that emphasis because the family needs all the help it can get. If this great institution collapses under a barrage of social engineering by politicians and liberals, the nation itself will crumble. I have been concerned about that possibility for more than 30 years. Unfortunately, marriage has continued to unravel.
This month, however, we are going to turn our attention to child rearing, which is the second most important subject a family ministry can address. Guiding our boys and girls through childhood and adolescent years has also become increasingly more challenging.
Let’s talk specifically about dealing with kids when they “push our hot buttons” and irritate us to the very core of our being. Does that sound familiar to you? Children are very skillful at making us angry. In fact, I think strong-willed children delight in raising our blood pressure. It is a source of power for them. Our natural reaction is to throw harsh words and insults at the offending child. Then after we have cooled down, we feel terrible about what we have said and done.
Here are some thoughts about the power of words. This topic is so vitally important that I addressed it in several of my books. Three of them are The New Strong-Willed Child, Bringing Up Boys, and Parenting Isn’t for Cowards. What follows are several excerpts.
Words are so easy to utter, often tumbling out without much reason or forethought. Those who hurl criticism or hostility at others may not even mean or believe what they have said. Their comments may reflect momentary jealousy, resentment, depression, fatigue, or revenge. Regardless of the intent, harsh words sting like killer bees. Almost all of us, including you and me, have lived through moments when a parent, a teacher, a friend, a colleague, a husband, or a wife said something that cut to the quick. That hurt is now sealed forever in the memory bank. It stays alive year by year. Even though a person forgets most of his or her experiences, a particularly painful comment may be remembered for decades. By contrast, the individual who did the damage may have no memory of the encounter a few days later. What you say to your children, especially, has incredible staying power.
Former Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, told a story about her father who never affirmed her as a child. When she was in high school, she brought home a straight-A report card. She showed it to her dad, hoping for a word of commendation. Instead, he said, “Well, you must be attending an easy school.” Forty years later the casual remark still burns in Mrs. Clinton’s mind. His thoughtless response may have represented nothing more than a casual quip, but it created a point of pain that has endured to this day.*
If you doubt the power of words, remember what John, the disciple, wrote under divine inspiration. He said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John was describing Jesus, the Son of God, who was identified personally with words. That makes the case about words as well as it will ever be demonstrated. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record a related prophetic statement made by Jesus that confirms the eternal nature of His teachings. He said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33). We remember what He said to this hour, nearly two thousand years later. Clearly, words matter.
There is additional wisdom about the impact of words written in the book of James.
The passage reads:
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:3-6 NIV)
Have you ever set yourself on fire with sparks spraying from your tongue?
More importantly, have you ever set a child’s spirit on fire with your anger? All of us have made that costly mistake. We knew we had blundered the moment the comment was made, but it was too late. If we tried for a hundred years, we couldn’t take back a single remark.
The first year Shirley and I were married, she became very angry with me about something that neither of us can recall. In the frustration of the moment she said, “If this is marriage, I don’t want any part of it.” She didn’t mean it and regretted her words almost immediately. An hour later we had reconciled and forgiven each other, but Shirley’s statement could not be taken back. We’ve laughed about it through the years and the issue is inconsequential today. Still, 53 years later, there is nothing either of us can do to erase the utterance of the moment.
Words are not only remembered for a lifetime, but if not forgiven, they endure beyond the chilly waters of death. We read in Matthew 12:36: “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” Thank God, those of us who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ are promised that our sins—and our harsh words—will be remembered against us no more and will be removed “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). Apart from that atonement, however, our words will follow us forever.
I didn’t intend to preach a sermon here, because I am not a minister or a theologian. But I find great inspiration for all family relationships within the great wisdom of the Scriptures. And so it is with the impact of what we say. The scary thing for us parents is that we never know when the mental videotape is running during our interactions with children and teens. A comment that meant little to us at the time may stick and be repeated long after we are dead and gone. By contrast, the warm and affirming things we say about our sons and daughters may be a source of satisfaction for decades. Again, it is all in the power of words.
Here’s something else to remember. The circumstances that precipitate a hurtful comment for a child or teen are irrelevant to their impact. Let me explain. Even though a child pushes you to the limit, frustrating and angering you to the point of exasperation, you will nevertheless pay a price for overreacting. Let’s suppose you lose your poise and shout, “I can’t stand you! I wish you belonged to someone else.” Or “I can’t believe you failed another test. How could a son of mine be so stupid!” Even if every normal parent would also have been agitated in the same situation, your child will not focus on his misbehavior or failure in the future. He is likely to forget what he did to cause your outburst, but he will recall the day you said you didn’t want him or that he was stupid.
It isn’t fair, but neither is life.
I know I’m stirring a measure of guilt into the mix with these comments. (My words are powerful too, aren’t they?) My purpose, however, is not to undermine your confidence but to make you mindful that everything you say has lasting meaning for a child. He may forgive you later for “setting the fire,” but how much better it would have been to remain cool. You can learn to do that with prayer and practice.
It will also help to understand that we are most likely to say something hurtful when we are viscerally angry—when we are so perturbed that we aren’t thinking rationally. This is because of the powerful biochemical reaction going on inside. The human body is equipped with an automatic defense system called the fight-or-flight mechanism, which prepares the entire organism for action. When we’re upset or frightened, adrenaline is pumped into the bloodstream, setting off a series of physiological responses within the body. In a matter of seconds, the individual is transformed from a quiet condition to an “alarm reaction” state. The result is a red-faced father or mother who shouts things he or she had no intention of saying.
These biochemical changes are involuntary, operating quite apart from conscious choice. What is voluntary, however, is our reaction to them. We can learn to take a step back in a moment of excitation. We can choose to hold our tongue and remove ourselves from a provocative situation. As you have heard, it is wise to count to ten (or five hundred) before responding. It is extremely important to do this when we’re dealing with children who anger us. We can control the impulse to lash out verbally or physically and avoid doing what we will certainly regret when the passion has cooled.
What should we do when we have lost control and said something that has deeply wounded a child? We should begin to repair the damage as quickly as possible. I have many fanatic golfing friends who have tried in vain to teach me their crazy game. They never give up even though it is a lost cause. One of them told me that I should immediately replace the divot after digging yet another hole with my club. He said that the quicker I could get that tuft of grass back in place, the faster its roots would reconnect. My friend was talking about golf, but I was thinking about people.
When you have hurt someone, whether a child, a spouse, or a colleague, you must dress the wound before infection sets in. Apologize, if appropriate. Talk it out. Seek to reconcile. The longer the “divot” bakes in the sun, the smaller its chances for recovery will be.
Isn’t that a wonderful thought? Of course, the apostle Paul beat us to it. He wrote
almost two thousand years ago, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26). That Scripture has often been applied to husbands and wives, but I think it is just as valid with children.
I’ll close with this. It is never wise to write off a son or daughter, no matter how irritating, selfish or insane that individual may seem to be. It may take the rest of your life to rebuild the relationship that is now in jeopardy. Don't let anger fester for too long. Make the first move toward reconciliation. And try hard not to hassle your kids. They hate to be nagged. If you follow them around with one complaint after another, they are almost forced to protect themselves by appearing deaf. And finally, continue to treat them with respect, even when punishment or restrictions are necessary. Occasionally, you may even need to say, "I'm sorry!"
My father found it very difficult to say those words. I remember working with him in the back yard when I was fifteen years of age, on a day when he was particularly irritable for some reason. I probably deserved his indignation, but I thought he was being unfair. He crabbed at me for everything I did, even when I hustled. Finally, he yelled at me for something petty and that did it. He turned my boat over. I threw down the rake and quit.
Defiantly I walked across our property and down the street while my dad demanded that I come back. It was one of the few times I ever took him on like that! I meandered around town for a while, wondering what would happen to me when I finally went home. Then I strolled over to my cousin's house on the other side of town. After several hours there, I admitted to his father that I had had a bad fight with my dad and he didn't know where I was. My uncle persuaded me to call home and assure my parents that I was safe. With knees quaking, I phoned my dad.
"Stay there," he said, "I'm coming over."
To say that I was apprehensive for the next few minutes would be an understatement. In a short time Dad arrived and asked to see me alone.
"Bo," he began. "I didn't treat you right this afternoon. I was riding your back for no good reason and I want you to know I'm sorry. Your mom and I want you to come home now."
I have no bad memories of that episode today. He didn’t tear into my delicate heart,
or call me names that would have followed me to this day. Instead, my proud, strong,
6-foot 4-inch father was compassionate and humble enough to say to a hot-headed adolescent, “I’m sorry.”
He made a friend for life.
Blessings to you all,
James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
Founder and President
*Martha Sherrill, “Mrs. Clinton’s Two Weeks out of Time: The Vigil for Her Father, Taking a toll Both Public and Private,” The Washington Post (April 3, 1993): C1.
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