Dad’s disgust showed on his face before his words even emerged. “I can’t believe you smell of cigarettes again.”
“Really? You can still smell it?” Justin lifts his shirt to his nose to sniff it.
“Yeah, me and probably half the folks in church tonight.”
“Huh.” Justin shrugs. “I’m surprised. I haven’t smoked since Thursday. Been trying to quit. Oh well.”
“Don’t you realize you’re polluting your body with poison every time you inhale?” He raises both hands in exasperation and finds himself saying for the 835th time, “Don’t you know your body is a temple of the Lord?”
Suddenly Justin’s head tilts to the side. His face grows serious. His eyes grow wide as the realization of what his father said sinks in. “You mean…I…I am a temple? Really?”
The light in the dimly lit kitchen begins to brighten. Amazing Grace begins to play in the background. Justin’s mother enters the doorway and smiles as she sees what his father said begin to sink in. “Why Dad…I get it now! I shouldn’t smoke! I shouldn’t harm my own body…my…temple. Why I can see it so clearly now. I’ve…been…bad.”
<music beomes louder and all in the room begin to cry in joy>
This scenario has never and will never play itself out anywhere but in fiction. And yet there we often are, just like this father, saying the same thing over and over again. If we know that saying the same things, even true things, over and over again is never going to produce the desired result, why do we continue to do it? The truth is we have crossed over from advising to badgering. In advising mode, we are sharing a new idea with someone who might find the information helpful. But in badgering, we are simply repeating our views ad nauseum to make sure the listener hasn’t forgotten how much we disapprove. Advising is a caring act. Badgering is an assault. We are throwing our repeated words at them yet again because we are annoyed that we have shared our learned and wise thoughts with them, and they have simply rejected them and, in essence, us.
Sharing a basic truth often is sufficient to obtain change in others. Most people want to alter their choices in light of new and true information. But when it is not sufficient, when a truth that should propel a person toward change does nothing, then we must own the fact that something else is at work here. It would be far better to spend our energies trying to find out what that “something else” is.
Your children may not have the slightest clue why they are doing what they are doing. The mix of things constantly rolling through their heads may be almost impossible for them to make sense of. Repeating instructions over and over is simply adding to the noise.
So what should you do?
Change the dance. Bring some calm. Speak the truth. They already know how you feel about smoking or drugs or premarital sex. So acknowledge that. Try instead, “Well, you already know how I feel about such things. I’m sure that repeating it would only annoy you. But I’ll always love you. You will always be my son.”
Several good things happen with those statements.
- It takes the pressure off this kid to produce a clear answer for a very unclear behavior. If he doesn’t yet know why he’s making these self-destructive choices, it will only bring frustration (or lies) when he tries to give you a reason from his confused thinking.
- It makes clear that there is always a path back home. Even when what he does makes no sense, his Dad loves him. (gee…does that sound familiar?) He can hold firmly to that truth, so that when the day finally comes in which the fruit of his bad decisions becomes apparent, he’ll see a way back home.
- It removes a bad energy from the process. When much of their energy has to be spent justifying themselves to you, it’s like an unruly dog that is constantly straining against the leash of its owner. They can only think about the powers holding them back. They haven’t yet begun to think about just what would happen if they rushed headlong into the places they are trying to go.
This straining against the “leash” comes to define them. It also becomes their excuse for their behaviors. “If my parents would just get off my back…” By stopping the badgering, you are now officially “off [their] back.” When you release the leash, they realize that where they are is due to their decisions. The energy that they’ve spent battling your words of judgment is now freed up to do something more positive.
It also makes something clear to them. They are free to go wherever they want. Life will now be good, they muse. But of course, the bad things in their life that they’ve believed were due to your over-direction are somehow still around. Turns out it’s not because you’ve been “on [their] backs.” If that were true, then life should be so much better now. Yet somehow, life is still difficult. And once they realize this, they will be better able to start the process of focusing on the true causes of their life’s situation.
Change the dance. Bring calm. Speak the truth.
Carol Barnier is a popular Christian conference speaker. She is the author of four books, including Engaging Today’s Prodigal, dozens of articles, and a frequent radio guest. Her objective is to have the wit of Erma Bombeck crossed with the depth of C.S. Lewis, but admits that on most days, she only achieves a solid Lucy Ricardo with a bit of Bob the Tomato. Follow her blog at Carolbarnier.com or her free on-line community for parents with highly distractible kids, www.SizzleBop.com.