Challenge kids to excellence without criticism’s sting

My husband Bob, even in his 60’s now, remembers his junior high school art teacher. His job doesn’t require much by way of drawing skills, but he does have to sketch the occasional diagram or flow chart to illustrate a concept. Often while doing that, he finds himself apologizing for his lack of artistry.

He was generally a good student, but not in art class.

The art teacher told him he’d pass him under one condition: that he never enroll in another art class again. Now, Bob can tell that as a funny story, meant to make fun of his lack of artistic skills, but I find it deeply sad.

Think about the impact of that comment coming from a teacher. Granted, some people have more innate ability than others, but everyone can grow. What would a comment like that sound like had it come from a math teacher? “You’re no good at math. Why don’t you give up and focus on something else?”

True, my husband had no innate talent for art. But what are some other ways his art teacher could have approached the situation?

Excellence without the sting

  • Skills can be learned. Focus on teaching skills. Not everyone is destined to become an artist, but everyone can improve their drawing skills and move toward basic competency.
  • excellence in creativityDefine art more broadly as creativity. Maybe drawing isn’t everyone’s preferred medium, but that doesn’t mean artistry can’t be expressed in other ways. Some people are creative with words, with ideas, with people, with structures. Find that creativity.
  • Enjoy the act of creating art. Instead of feeling shame over the results, learn to experience joy in the creative process. This is the equivalent of singing in the shower– who needs an audience when expression is the goal?

How do parents handle similar issues with our children?

Do we place such an emphasis on excellence and proper behavior that we discourage or shame our children when they don’t fit the cultural standards?

Correction can be discouraging

excellence social skillsA friend of mine recently saw a mother and her three-year-old daughter at church. She was a cute, sweet little girl and my friend said hi to her, smiled and waved. The little girl immediately hid behind her mother’s legs and her mother began prompting her: “Say hi back, Klarissa.” And she started crying.

My friend felt bad for putting the girl into the situation in the first place, for it was one she recognized. Her own daughter, now a teenager, had responded the exact same way when she was younger.

Not everyone is naturally good at talking with people they don’t know very well. Yet it’s a skill that everyone will need at a basic level.

What if this mother explained to my friend– in front of her child– that she’s not very good socially and therefore excused from giving a polite response? On the other hand, what if she forced her to carry on lengthy conversations with strangers regularly, paying no heed to her natural inclinations? Both extremes can be damaging.

Or correction can be effective.

What the mother did was talk with her daughter at home and tell her, “Sometimes when we’re out, people I know will say hello to you. You don’t have to talk with them for a long time, but it’s polite to say hello back.” They practiced it and she understood the expectation. Next time they ran into that situation in public, the girl still hid, and the mother still had to prompt her to say hi back… but she had courage and did it. And her mother praised her for the effort.

This type of approach is the better one for setting her up to have successful social skills in the future: encouragement, teaching, practice, and taking small steps forward… even in areas we’re not naturally good at.

Tweetable:  We want kids to do their best, performing with excellence. Our criticism is intended to spur them on to a higher level, but here is a timely reminder to check ourselves before our words sting.  Click to Tweet

Attachment theory applied to God

attachment father daughterIt hit me like a bolt of lightning as I was preparing a workshop that I presented at a national children’s spirituality summit last month. (My topic was spiritual learning styles and how a child most naturally connects with God.) God is a primary caregiver and attachment theory applies to a human being’s relationship with God, not only to our human relationships.

Others have the same perspective.

For example, Peter Lovenheim, author of The Attachment Effect, discovered:

Of course I can have a true attachment relationship with God even though God cannot be seen. My sister, after all, had been unseen by me for more than a year now, yet I still had a relationship with her that met the attachment criteria…. I continue to keep her close (proximity) with photos and other objects, and by talking to her. And our love continues to strengthen me (secure love) and comfort me in times of stress (safe haven). My love for Jane and hers for me survives her death, as does our attachment relationship.”

attachment university studentWe are born to connect.

Harry Reis, Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester, writes: “Attachment theory always captivates students. When I lecture about attachment theory, even the most distracted student soon starts to pay attention.”

In my experience, if the subject of a relationship with God has come up in conversations I’ve had, everyone has admitted, “If it were possible, I would want to know God personally.” Kids are no different. Most of us want to feel attached to God.

How can I help a child strengthen his or her attachment bond with God?

All of these previous blog posts give a description of different styles children use while bonding to God, with practical ideas and conversation starters. This is so valuable to a child’s continued growth in faith.

Attachment theory’s observations are at once wise, astute, and intensely personal–it’s hard to listen to an account of attachment theory without thinking, “Yes, that’s it!”  (Professor Harry Reis)

Tweetable: Is your child asking about God or interested in knowing about God? Or maybe your kids resist going to religious services? Be sure you know the child’s natural way to connect with God. It’s almost certainly not the same as yours. Click to Tweet 

When God is mean

is God mean?Recently I spent time after school with a 5-year-old in my extended family. Her homework assignment that day was, “List at least five words that describe you.” After she gave her list I called out to her siblings, “Hey, do you want to do this too? And they did. Then it was my turn. I started my list of words describing myself when one of them added, “Mean—sometimes you are mean.”

Well, that was a new one for me! I’d never been called mean, at least not that I could remember. Selfish? Sure. Insensitive? Sometimes. But mean??? That’s pretty harsh.

“Sometimes you are mean.”

mirror is God meanOvercoming a first impulse to be defensive, I began to investigate: “Tell me about the last time I was mean to you.” I listened without comment or criticism to several minutes of conversation, and the evidence became clear. I was mean anytime I said no to a request, or when I said “Wait and ask your mother; she’ll be home soon” to something the child wanted to do.

That’s a normal response to get upset when we’re told no. We all want life to go our way. So I simply acted as a mirror for the child: “You want me to say yes–not no or wait–when you ask for something. You seem frustrated with me.” There was a momentary silence (I’m inwardly hoping it was an Aha! registering in the child’s awareness) and then we moved on to something else. Just planting a seed.

It got me thinking…. Do some children believe God is mean, too?

Most children (and adults), at one time or another, want God to use God’s power to give us what we want. A child will pray. In the midst of upsetting circumstances, the child might pray with tears, “Don’t let my parents get divorced.” “Please make my cousin get well.”  When the outcome is not what the child asked for, some children can turn away and accuse God of not loving them. Who wants to get close to a God who is mean? Other kids might conclude that there is no God.

Be aware and keep listening.

Encourage kids to tell you how they arrive at their conclusions about us, or about God. Let them speak without criticism or argument. The topic will arise again and I want to be a trusted listener when it does. Don’t you?

Tweetable: Do you sense that your child believes God is mean? Despite their outward compliance with your family’s religious beliefs, something else may be brewing under the surface. Click to Tweet