Greetings as we enjoy the season of new growth—blooming flowers, tender shoots of grass blowing in the wind, and birds singing in the trees! This month I'd like to share a passage from my book, Bringing Up Boys. This particular chapter, titled "Staying Close," addresses the need for parents to build strong, healthy relationships with their children. That might sound like a no-brainer, but it's not always easy to do. After all, our culture is increasingly dominated by a "rat race" mentality that leaves precious little time for forging quality relationships with the people we love. I hope you'll find this analysis relevant.
The focal point of this discussion sounds so obvious that it may appear to offer nothing new. I believe, however, that there is value in what I am about to write. The essence of my message is that you, as parents, must work harder than ever at building satisfying and affirming relationships with your kids. You must give them a desire to stay within the confines of the family and conform to its system of beliefs. If you fail in this task, you could lose the battle of wills later on. The law today favors rebellious teens. They are likely to prevail in any nose-to-nose confrontation between generations, perhaps even leading to legal emancipation at an early age. Here's what you can do to prevent it.
When I was a kid, parents didn't have to depend as much on communication and closeness to keep their children in line. They could control and protect them, more or less, by the imposition of rules and the isolation of their circumstances. Farmer John could take sassy little Johnny out to the back forty acres and get his mind straight. Just the threat of that happening was enough to keep most teens from going off the deep end.
My folks understood that system. They had a million rules. There were regulations and prohibitions for almost every imaginable situation. Coming from a minister's home in a very conservative church, I was not allowed to go to movies (which were remarkably tame), or to dances, or even to use mild slang. I remember being reprimanded once for saying, "Hot dog!" when I got excited about something. I'm still not sure what danger those words conveyed to my dad, but he warned me not to say them again. Darn was seen as a euphemism for damn, geez meant Jesus, dad-gummit (an old southern expression) was an obvious representation of God's name. I dared not utter anything that even vaguely resembled profanity, even if it were nonsensical. My cousin, who lived under the same general regime, invented a slang word called gerrit that he could use without being accused of saying something bad. "I'm sick of that gerrit school," he might say. The invention didn't work. Gerrit got banned too.
In those days, parental authority typically stood like a great shield against the evils in what was called "the world." Anything perceived as unwholesome or immoral was kept outside the white picket fence simply by willing it to stay put. Fortunately, the surrounding community was helpful to parents. It was organized to keep kids on the straight and narrow. Censorship kept the movies from going too far, schools maintained strict discipline, infractions were reported to the parents, truant officers prevented students from playing hooky, chaperones usually preserved virginity, alcohol was not sold to minors, and illicit drugs were unheard of. Even adults outside the family saw it as their civic responsibility to help protect children from anything that could harm them, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Most of these townsfolk were probably acquainted with the children's parents, so it was easier for them to intervene. This support system didn't always do the job, of course, but it was generally effective.
Society's commitment to the welfare of children has all but disappeared. Rather than assisting parents in their child rearing responsibilities, the culture actually conspires against them. Alas, the white picket fence is gone. Harmful images and ideas come sliding under the front door, or, as we discussed earlier, they slither directly into the bedrooms through electronic media. As the world has become more sexualized and more violent, there are just too many opportunities for kids to get into trouble. Further, innumerable "voices" are out there enticing them to do what is wrong.
Parental authority is also undermined at every turn. For example, when parents decide today not to allow their boys to see a bad movie, their order is likely to be countermanded. The kids might watch the flick at the home of friends or on DVD when parents are at work. And these days, grownups seem to work longer and longer hours. That introduces one of the greatest points of danger. It is almost impossible for moms and dads to screen out harmful aspects of the culture when they are rarely at home in the afternoon. An unsupervised kid can get into more mischief in a single day than his parents can straighten out in a year.
Considering how the world has changed, it is doubly important to build relationships with boys from their earliest childhood. You can no longer rely on rules to get them past the predators in the wider world. It still makes sense to prohibit harmful or immoral behavior, but those prohibitions must be supplemented by an emotional closeness that makes children want to do what is right. They must know that you love them unconditionally and that everything you require of them is for their own good. It is also helpful to explain why you want them to behave in certain ways. "Laying down the law" without this emotional linkage is likely to fail.
Author and speaker, Josh McDowell, expressed this principle in a single sentence. He said, "Rules without relationship lead to rebellion." He is absolutely right. With all the temptations buzzing around our kids, simply saying no a thousand times creates a spirit of defiance. We have to build bridges to them from the ground up. The construction should begin early and include having fun as a family, laughing and joking, playing board games, throwing or kicking a ball, shooting baskets, playing ping-pong, running with the dog, talking at bedtime, and doing a thousand other things that tend to cement the generations together. The tricky part is to establish those friendships while maintaining parental authority and respect. It can be done. It must be done.
Building relationships with children does not require large amounts of money. A lifelong bond often emerges from traditions that give meaning to family time together. Children love daily routines and activities of the simplest kind. They want to hear the same story or the same joke until Mom and Dad are ready to climb the wall. And yet, these interactions are sometimes more appreciated by kids than are expensive toys or special events.
Beloved author and professor, Dr. Howard Hendricks, once asked his grown children what they remembered most fondly from their childhood. Was it the vacations they took or the trips to theme parks or the zoo? "No," they answered. It was when Dad got on the floor and wrestled with them. That's the way children think. It is especially the way boys think. The most meaningful activities in the family are often those simple interactions that build lasting connections between generations.
Let's describe what we mean by traditions. They refer to those repetitive activities that give identity and belonging to every member of the family. In the Broadway musical, "Fiddler on the Roof," remember that the fiddler was perched securely on top of the house because of deeply ingrained cultural tradition. It told every member of the Jewish community who he or she was and how to deal with the demands of life and even what to wear. There is comfort and security for children when they know what is expected and how they fit into the scheme of things.
Two friends, Greg Johnson and Mike Yorkey, offered some examples of how not to build good relationships with your kids in their book, Daddy's Home. These suggestions were written with tongue in cheek, but I think they got their point across.
• Serve as their human quarter machine at the video arcade.
• Have the NBA game of the week on while you're playing Monopoly with them.
• Read the paper while helping them with their algebra assignments.
• Go to the local high school football field to practice your short-irons and have your kids collect the golf balls after you're done.
• Suggest they take a nap with you on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
• Drive them to Cub Scouts and read a magazine in the car while the den mother instructs them on how to tie knots.
• Take them to your office on Saturday and have them color while you work.
Clearly, there are many ways to fake it—appearing to care and "be involved" when you're actually just babysitting. I guarantee you, however, that your kids won't be fooled for long. They can see through adult pretenses with something akin to X-ray vision. And they will remember that you were or were not there for them when they were reaching for you. Someone said love is giving somebody your undivided attention. It is a great definition.
Here's another idea relevant to relationships that I think makes a lot of sense. It's called "the first five minutes" and is based on a book that was published many years ago. Its thesis was that the first five minutes occurring between people sets the tone for everything that is to follow. For example, a public speaker is given very few moments to convince his audience that he really does have something worthwhile to say. If he's boring or stilted in the beginning, his listeners will turn him off like a light switch and he'll never know why. And if he hopes to use humor during his speech, he'd better say something funny very quickly or they won't believe he can make them laugh. The opportunity of the moment is lost. Fortunately, whenever we begin a new interaction, we have a chance to reset the mood.
This simple principle relates to family members as well. The first five minutes of the morning also determine how a mother will interact with her children on that day. Snarls or complaints as the kids gather for breakfast will sour their relationship for hours. Greeting children after school with kind words and a tasty snack may be remembered for decades. And at the end of the day when a man arrives home from work, the way he greets his wife, or doesn't greet his wife, will influence their interaction throughout the evening. A single criticism such as, "Not tuna casserole again!" will put their relationship on edge from there to bedtime. Men who complain that their wives are not affectionate at bedtime should think back to the first moments when they came together in the evening. He could have messed up some great possibilities with his initial snippy comments.
It all starts within the first five minutes.
To summarize, a close knit family is what keeps boys grounded when the world is urging them to break loose. In this day, you dare not become disconnected during the time when everything is on the line.
The day is coming when those of you with young children will need to draw on the foundation of love and caring that you have built. If resentment and rejection characterized the early years, the adolescent experience might be a nightmare. The best way to avoid this teenage time bomb is to defuse it in childhood. That is done with a healthy balance of authority and love at home. Begin now to build a relationship that will see you through the storms of adolescence.
With these thoughts in mind, I'd like to suggest that the greatest thing you can do for your kids is simply to spend some quality time with them. But don't save "quality time" only for special occasions and holidays—make it a daily occurrence! I have no doubt that there are busy work schedules, church engagements, house repairs, unpaid bills, and a thousand other commitments competing for your attention. Nevertheless, nothing is more important than the God-given responsibility of being a loving, involved, and committed presence in the lives of your children. So much of their future happiness and well-being depends on you.
I'd like to close by thanking those of you who have supported the ministry of Family Talk through your prayers and contributions over the past few months. We thank God for your faithful involvement in the mission to which He has called us. Grace, peace, and abundant blessings to you and your loved ones in the days ahead!
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