I recently overheard women talking at a party about two middle school kids who took their parents car for a joy ride one night. You can imagine what that conversation sounded like when the parents got hold of them. “Why would you do that?!” And the answer the kid gave was as maddening as the infraction itself.
What was the answer that was so irritating? He numbly said, “I don’t know.”
If you have raised children old enough to speak, you’ve certainly had a similar hair-raising conversation. “Why did you color with markers on the living room wall?” “I don’t know.” “Why do you have 10 zeroes in math?” “I don’t know.” “Why did you choose not to take out the trash after I asked you to do it three times?” “I don’t know.” “Why did you take off your diaper and throw the contents at the ceiling?” You know the answer.
Is it possible they really don’t know why they do the things they do?
Later this week, I had a conversation with a business owner who employs lots of college kids to work in her local restaurant. “They have an excuse for everything!” she said. “They not only have an excuse, but they also deliver a well thought out justification or rationalization for not doing what I’ve asked.”
It made me wonder if in our frustration with the “I don’t know’s” we are actually training our children to be excuse-makers. Maybe at times they honestly don’t know why they do what they do. Maybe as parents, it’s our job to help them to see their weaknesses, their destructive behaviors, and the way their actions affect others. Maybe we need to identify the character that needs to develop in their lives by lovingly helping them to see it, feel it and fix it.
Our kids need our help to do these three things:
- See it. Part of being a child is not knowing what they don’t know. As adults, we have the benefit of a lifetime of eye-opening experiences that help us to see the heart and character issues in our children. We can see what they can’t see. Problem is our kids don’t know they can’t see. Start by analyzing the repeating behaviors in a quiet moment alone or with your spouse. What do you see that your child probably doesn’t see? Instead of asking “Why did you do that?” ask them to look at the situation differently, like if they were on the outside looking in, or if it were two friends instead of his sibling and himself. “Can you see what that looks like?” Or if that isn’t getting a thoughtful response, then tell them what you see and help them to see it.
- Feel it. Once the child can see more clearly how their behavior has hurt, dishonored or affected them, their friend or their family member, let them feel it. That may look very different depending on the age of the child and your parenting style. Feeling their choice and how it affected others may come in the form of a timeout at age two or a loss of a privilege for an older child or having to write a letter to the person affected for a teenager, giving them time to process and learn how to feel the effects of their choices.
- Fix it. The goal here isn’t punishment. The goal is heart change and honoring the affected relationship. While we as parents can’t strong arm this process, we can teach our children how to ask for forgiveness and seek reconciliation. Our kids need to learn how to reach out after they have disobeyed or hurt someone else and make it right. It’s not enough to say, “Sorry.” Take it to the next step of owning what they have done and being able to verbalize how it affected the other person. “I’m sorry that I. . . Will you forgive me?” Can you imagine if the adults in your life knew how to do this well? Think about the marriages that could be impacted by one person being able to own their mistakes and ask for forgiveness from their spouse. “I’m sorry that I didn’t come home from work when I told you I would. I realize that affected your family dinner plans. Will you forgive me?” No excuses.
So, while we are raising our kids to understand why they do what they do, let’s be patient and give them some grace while they are learning. Instead of training our kids to give excuses, let’s help them to see what they can’t see, feel how their choices impact others and repair their relationships when they have hurt someone. Imagine how parenting with that goal in mind could impact a generation.