As parents, we want the best for our children – we nurture them, we discipline them, we seek out experiences and opportunities that will help them grow. And at the heart of our nurturing, it is the daily, intentional encouragement we give our children that helps them develop into confident, compassionate, God-loving children and adults.
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Encouragement helps children identify their value and role in the family. Children who clearly know they are a valuable part of the family tend to grow into adults who know they are a valuable part of their community (church, neighborhood, etc) and are eager community “investors” and encouragers of the people around them.
We're also given the Biblical instruction to “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16) and to not exasperate our children (Ephesians 6:4), and for my husband and me, that has meant we look for intentional ways to encourage our children and to nourish and nurture our family. Here are five of the guidelines that shape our parenting.
Enjoy Being Around Your Children
Take joy in your children. Laugh eagerly with them and find time to do things together that you all enjoy – just like you would with any other person whose company you enjoy. This isn't about being friends – this is a parent/child relationship – but this is about seeing your child for who they are and helping them know they are valued and special.
Taking joy in your children can take many forms – finding creative things to do together, going on special little outings, or even just including them in your own activities, like making dinner or planting your garden.
Praise Eagerly and Often (and Honestly!)
My husband and I notice that our children are more eager to help and respond best to discipline when we have been faithful in honestly and genuinely praising them for what they do well. These tend to be the little things, like when we're driving home from the playground saying to my daughter, “I'm so proud of you for being extra-patient today while you were waiting for the swings. Thank you for being so polite.” We find that even on the fussy days, there's always some gem – an extra “thank you” that was said or a moment when our daughter obeyed quickly – that can be brought to light and appreciated.
Now, this isn't to say that poor behavior shouldn't be reprimanded – that is absolutely crucial for children to understand what is acceptable within the family and for learning how to be wise – but to use the analogy of a sailboat, we have found that correction tends to be the rudder to set the course while encouragement tends to be the wind in the sails.
This is true for children who have chemical, hormonal, or other behavioral issues, as well, perhaps even more so. With children who need very clearly defined boundaries, intentional, specific encouragement alongside specific admonishment is absolutely necessary.
As a side note, be careful keep your praise child-specific rather than comparative, especially in front of others. “Look at your friend, Tommy. He sits so nicely and eats more politely than you do” may be meant to inspire your child to improve, but it can just as easily demean your child if said regularly. “I appreciate that you've only gotten off your chair once even though it's easy to be distracted by our guests” focuses specifically on your child and his or her behavior and keeps the accountability squarely on his or her head.
Make Respect the “Litmus Test” for All Behavior
Teach your children to examine their behavior with respect in mind. We find this especially helpful when dealing with issues like whining and begging. When our daughter comes to us with a whiny complaint, we say to her, “You are welcome to discuss your complaint, but only if you speak respectfully. Are you being respectful?”
Once she speaks without being whiny (which sometimes takes two or three reminders…), we listen to her full comment and then respond with our observations. Obviously, we still have full parental veto, but this has done wonders for ending toy-aisle begging and whiny complaints. We also notice that it has the side benefit of teaching our children how to engage in true dialogue about issues, including emotional ones.
This has another side benefit as well. By teaching children to speak and act with respect and by responding respectfully to them in kind, they learn that their thoughts and opinions have value, which is key for building good teenage child/parent relationships. If respect is built and maintained through childhood, the kind of trust and open communication that is needed to enjoy the teenage years is nurtured.
Practice What You Preach
Every parenting book or child psychology text will tell you “practice what you preach.” If you want to raise boys who are compassionate, then Daddy and the other men regularly influencing your sons must be compassionate. If you want to raise girls who are faithful in praying for those in need, you yourself must model that faithful example. In the case of encouraging our children, find ways to genuinely encourage others around you and your children will learn that encouragement is a way of life and that you're not “putting it on” when you praise and encourage them.
Create Opportunities for Genuine Praise and Encouraging Feedback
In addition to finding ways to pepper your comments to your children with encouragement and praise, go out of your way to create opportunities to bless and encourage your children as well. This could be as beautiful and intentional as the blessing of children in a Jewish Shabbat meal or as simple as a weekly lemonade date with one of your children where you intentionally find the opportunity to say, “I really appreciated you this week because…”
No matter how you go about it, the joy in your family will be nourished by intentionally finding ways to encourage your children as they grow. May you find the strength and wisdom you need in Scripture to encourage your children, especially if your child is going through difficult times, and may you find deep peace in Christ as you raise your children.