Our toddler is talking now and I thought it would be sweet to teach him to say something to make Mommy feel good. So I say, “Mommy is….?” and he says “the Best!” and pumps his fist in the air. It’s adorable. So we came up with words for each of us. Daddy is… awesome, his sister is pretty, and he is cute.
My children are gorgeous but something in me regrets the adjectives I chose for this game. I intend to mean it as a compliment. We tell our daughter she’s beautiful all the time and always have. And at the same time, she’s never been obsessed with looks. “Dressing up” to her is piecing together a hodgepodge of all the different things that a 9-year-old might think is pretty. This means wearing her “cool” boots, neon leggings, leopard print skirt, pink shirt, frilly scarf and all the necklaces.
Even though she’s undoubtedly pretty, she still has doubts. Like a phase of not wanting to wear her glasses, and would make up excuses to get out of wearing them. This is a girl thing, right? Guys have similar phases of questioning their looks, except we keep those feelings submerged where girls are more likely to scream it out loud and throw things at the mirror.
We try to emphasize the cliched “it’s not what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside that matters.” Then top it off with a “you are beautiful in both ways.” She shrugs it off, we pray it resonates in her mind.
This is what experts say, parents’ words become a child’s inner dialog. The thoughts you have about yourself as you grow up are a reaction to the things you heard your parents say about you. Or what they didn’t say. Or what you perceived them saying. Words are flying at us from all directions and all people. A parent’s struggle to break through with words of truth is difficult.
- If you only say it once, it may not stick. It needs reinforcing.
- What you say may be contrary to what they’ve heard elsewhere. They need to believe you.
- They’re likely to believe negative comments easier than positive ones.
- They say something negative about themselves, and you do not disagree, they may assume it’s true or that you agree.
- They hear snarky or sarcastic comments said out of frustration. “Well, I guess you just don’t care about homework.” They think “OK, right. I don’t care.”
We all have negative perceptions about ourselves and, at the same time, agree everyone else should believe positive things about themselves. It comes down to identity – who we are. More than what we do or how we act. Much of what we do is a reaction to either how we want to be perceived or to counter-act who we think we are. A few church secretaries I’ve met have been some of the grouchiest people. That’s not who they are; that’s who they have become by being in a position of gate-keeper for years – bombarded with requests, demands, questions, arguments, gossip. They’ve forgotten their identity.
This is the root of Christian hypocrisy. We act like jerks in traffic. Snap at the cashier and waitress. Scream about politics. Scoff at beggars.
We expect service and forget we are to serve.
We demand our voices be heard and forget to be slow to speak.
We work hard for our stuff and forget none of it’s ours to begin with.
We forget that we all share the same identity. We were all created in the image of God.
At a parenting workshop recently, the leader suggested we find our kids’ talent. Saying “we all need something we feel we are good at.” I agree but added to it. More than “you can do…” guesses, use more “you ARE…” statements. What if you’ve always believed you can play baseball, then don’t make the college team. Or you can dance ballet but break your leg. What hopes and dreams come crashing down if my good isn’t good enough. We need a stronger identity to rely on.
So we intentionally pepper in words of Godly identity to our daughter. Catch her in the act of doing good. Tell her, “You’re kind. I saw it on the playground when you helped the boy.” Notice the difference in attaching the identity to her, not just the action. We do this when we tell people they’re funny, not that they just said something funny. “I heard you compliment the girl’s glasses. You’re a great encourager.”
This is intentional, daily, creative parenting. But it’s worth it to have children grow up to know they are loved by God and are called to love and good works.