Rather than giving in to the Thanksgiving coma, my family made an outing to the theater to see “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” after our turkey dinner. I was in tears almost immediately. The movie and Fred Rogers’ example as both a Christian and as a public figure touched me deeply. The whole experience reminded me of a few pieces of parenting wisdom.
When dealing with our children, don’t get in such a hurry that we respond and react only to symptoms and behaviors rather than the cause. Sometimes a child’s poor behavior might be saying, “I’m afraid,” or “I’m angry,” or “I’m sad.” As parents we focus so often on “productivity” or completion of a to-do list that we ignore signals that our children are sending.
I’ll never forget an example of this from my own parenting chronicles. I was recently divorced and my ex-husband was not in the picture. My then three-year-old son was having fits of anger. I went to my pastor for advice, sure that he would encourage me toward some type of discipline. Instead, he patiently advised my 20-something-year-old self about seeing things from my toddler’s perspective. He must have been feeling confused and sad, wondering why his dad was gone. He didn’t know how to process these emotions. It was up to me to help him do that in a healthy and productive way.
In the movie, Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers talks about this perceptiveness, and not just with children but with grown ups too. When others act out, it helps to wonder about the root impulse that makes acting out happen. Conversely, when we are angry, he explains we must learn to deal with strong emotions in a way that doesn’t harm others or ourselves. His outlet was to bang on the lower keys of a piano. Teaching children to find positive outlets for their emotions without harming others or themselves is an important life skill that will serve them well for their entire lives.
Psalm 4:4 tells us that there is a proper way to be angry: "Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” This scripture is again quoted in Ephesians and suggests that one way to deal with negative emotions is to reflect on the root and allow the still, sweet, and calming voice of God to minister. For children, it is often helpful to have a physical release such as punching a pillow or banging on the piano. Most helpfully, you as a parent can acknowledge out loud that they are angry, especially if you can name the cause. You might not be able to allow bad behavior, but you can validate their experience of anger, jealously, betrayal, or just plain tiredness. Whatever the method, finding a healthy outlet to negative emotions saves both the person experiencing the feelings and those around them.
If you’ve ever watched an episode of Mr. Rogers, you know that every episode begins and ends exactly the same way, down to the changing of shoes and sweater. Children thrive when they know exactly what to expect. This is contrary to what culture might tell us about fast-paced and fluid youth culture. Teens might try and convince us that being relevant and trendy is most important, but even for these children in transition, there are times for slow, steady stability.
As my children were growing up, and even today in my own life, I try to start and end my day with a regular routine. What happens in the in-between I may not have control over and might change daily, but knowing that the daily habits and structure will begin and end the same way brings me great peace and rhythm. Structure and stability are gained with the rhythm of routine and the implementation of this brings peace and security to a household. Routines alone help children know what to expect and given them a sense that the world can be predictably mastered. Routines also help parents set expectations and move toward desired behaviors, like after play time is tidy time, and then bath time, and then bed time. If one thing leads to another by habit, it becomes a way of life together. And then routines can become traditions--like praying together before school, or mealtimes, or at bedtime--the kind of thing that adult children look back on with fond memories.
The book of Psalms has many verses talking about morning and evening routines. In Psalm 5:3 it states, “In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.” Psalm 63:6 encourages, “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.” Prayer as part of a daily routine has a very long history!
One of the things that struck me most about the movie is how comfortable Mr. Rogers is with uncomfortable silences. As a communicator, I feel the need to fill in every silence with a rush of words. However, I am often doing myself and those around me a disservice by not waiting. Sometimes I’ll even try to answer a question that I’ve asked someone, just because I can’t stand waiting for an answer. However, sometimes letting a child wrestle with and self-discover an answer is far more important than everyone’s comfort in the situation.
With older children, I feel that the car is an excellent place to have uncomfortable conversations. You as the parent are able to give the child the space to ponder while you are keeping your eyes on the road. It also seems to make awkward silences less awkward because your eyes aren’t plastered on their faces looking for a response to your conversation. And, there's no running away to the next room. Some of the most important conversations I’ve ever had with my kids have been while driving. We’ve covered pornography, sexuality, and lots of struggles in faith on our journeys to play practice, church, and the grocery store. Being a mom taxi was honestly one of the greatest gifts of my parenthood. Wherever the location, it is wise to remember the verse in James admonishing, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (James 1:19).
Culture tries to put shame on us as parents. We, in turn, try to conform our children into whatever makes us look best in public, causing us to deal with symptoms and not the root of our children’s behavior. Make each moment with your child a holy moment in which the Holy Spirit can guide you as a spiritual mentor in their lives. Don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s not about you, it’s about you being God’s servant in your child’s life. Try not to be driven by a to-do list and concentrate more on being driven by a to-be list. Be engaged with your children. Create boundaries and routine that will do their soul good. Lastly, when communicating with your children, actually allow real communication which means both parties having time to express themselves. Mary Kay Ash once said, “Everyone has an invisible sign hanging from their neck saying, 'Make me feel important.'” When implemented in the home environment, children will learn how to do work through emotions while doing no harm to themselves and others.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster