Thursday, January 20, 2011

Teaching Children to Handle Dissappointment

Do you remember the Texas mom who tried to hire a hitman in an attempt help her daughter make the cheerleading squad? She decided that the girl competing against her daughter would be too devastated to try out for the squad if the girl’s mother were murdered. I realize this is an extreme case (so extreme two movies were made about the story), but many parents, to a lesser degree, believe their duty requires them to take extreme measures to insure a smooth path for their children. Rather than guide children, many parents try to insulate them.

Insulating children from all disappointment pads their self-esteem to dangerous levels. Two results are likely. First, they will begin to think that the world is something they control. At the least, they will begin to expect life to always turn out according to their predilection. After all, no matter how I perform, someone is going to make me feel good about it. Over indulgence in praise and rewards will condition children to believe that they will always receive something in return. Conversely, that’s not how the real world works. Sometimes, you must do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because your will be praised. And in every day of life, you should perform at the top of your game even if you know you are not the best in the world. Children should learn the enjoyment and satisfaction of knowing that they gave it their best.

Secondly, they will fail to learn how to handle disappointments. According to a Kansas State study, anxiety problems among college students rose to 62%. They claim that life for a college student is harder than it was 10 years ago. For me, this begs the question, “Is it really harder, or do they fail to handle stress like students in times past?” Are they accustomed to parents and teachers solving their problems for them? According to the Surgeon General, 1 in 5 children suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. Why are these rates so high? The answer is not short and cannot be reduced to one issue. Nevertheless, it appears the national “state of our emotions” indicates a people having very thin skin.
Consider some principles to apply as we deal with children’s disappointments:

1. The Principle of Consequences. Our children need to learn the law of sowing and reaping, not the expectancy that parents and teachers will insure a perfect outcome. Children must learn that actions have consequences – good and bad. This principle applies to school work, friendships, family relationships, athletics, arts, and spirituality. Some practice with dedication; that’s why they can play the violin well, pitch a killer fastball, or create a beautiful painting. Some procrastinate; that’s why they are always disappointed with their grades, stressed about finishing their assignments, and unable to deliver their best work. Others manage their time well; they are able to fit in school work, family time, and enjoyable activities. Kids need to learn that many of their frustrations are consequences of their actions. If we step in, take over, and eliminate the obstacle for them, we have missed an opportunity to teach them the Principle of Consequences. Rather, steer them in the right direction, helping them learn to change their own behavior. Make sure they never become accustomed to expecting someone else to make their life better for them.
2. The Principle of Encouragement. Flattery and false praise can produce two opposite outcomes. Children will believe they always are great or never are great. The outcome lacks balance. Children who see the ridiculousness of false praise can become paranoid, wondering if they are really good at anything. After all, since mom and dad praise everything they do, they can’t be trusted to offer genuine advice. Children who absorb flattery with eagerness begin to think they are great at everything. Then when mom and dad are no longer around to offer praise, the child is unprepared to deal with the fact that no one else thinks they are great. So what is the alternative to praising children? Encourage them. Bring attention to their good behavior, not just their performance. Rather than praising them for being a beautiful, intelligent, talented kid (don’t be fooled into thinking that they really believe you believe that), encourage them to keep up the good work. They will learn that success is its own reward, finding fulfillment in the success rather than the praise of others.
3. The Principle of Unconditional Love. At times, disappointments result from hard luck. He did the best he could but still lost the spelling bee, got cut from the basketball team, or failed his driver’s education test. Sometimes, kids learn from experience that life isn’t fair. Even when it is fair, fair is not always fun. This is why children need parents who express their unconditional love. Homes should be a place where kids find retreat and acceptance, not unnecessary criticism and unrealistic expectations. Their boyfriend may break up with them, their friends may call them names on the playground, or they may get picked last for tag football teams; but home should be a place where they can count on unconditional love. Even when mom and dad are disappointed with them, their love should never be a question.

Remember that the Heavenly Father’s strategy for teaching children about His love is the example of earthly fathers and mothers. Scripture never tells us of a promise that our Father will eliminate disappointments and remove trouble. There are, however, many Scriptures that teach us to cast our cares on Him because He cares for us. Let’s represent our Heavenly Father well to our children. Eliminating childhood disappointments is impossible , and attempting it is unhealthy. Teach them how to handle disappointment and you have taught them a skill they will use for the rest of their life.

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