You will have to forgive me for my month long hiatus. For the past 36 days we have had grandkids at our house. I must tell you a quick story here. While falling off to sleep one evening, I said to my 3 year old grandson, “Knox, you are my best friend (this was a phrase he had learned and was using liberally). He replied by saying, “Pappabo, you are my best friend too, and so is toad (a frog he had captured that day in the yard)”. For a fleeting moment I was feeling very special.
I want to conclude the blog series “Building Emotional Strength in Our Kids”. If you need to refresh your memory, go back and reread the past 3 posts. They are not long and it won’t take but a minute. The past three traits I discussed were gratefulness, responsibility, and self-control. The final strength that I want to be clear for my kids is this one: I am loved.
The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:13, “Now these three remain – faith, hope, and love” And then this remarkable commentary… “but the greatest of these is love.” Every human being needs to know that their mere existence on this earth is the source of delight and value to the people who brought them into the world.
There are two ways we, as parents, can love on our children. The first is with our words. I’ll say this as directly as I know how: it staggers me how careless parents get with the words they use that hit the ears of their children. I’ve been watching this, and I invite you to do this in your own life and around you. A parent in a grocery store gets frustrated with a fussy toddler – not a defiant human being, just a fussy toddler – and the parents starts saying “What’s the matter with you? Why do you act so stupid? I can’t take you anywhere!” Think about what that’s doing to that child’s heart. Kids grow up a little bit, and you’ll hear parents speak about their own children in ways that almost disown them: “Donny here, he’s our different one.” “Kevin is just not an athlete like his brothers.” Often the words are said in a jesting tone, but the message is clear: this child is a disappointment. This child does not make my eyes shine. This child does not make me feel like a winner. I have news for you. It’s not our kid’s job to make us feel like a winner.
Parents we need to express affection and appreciation on a regular basis. Find out what’s the language that they best receive* and tell them that you love them. If it’s awkward and you’re not good at it, tell them anyway. If you didn’t get it much when you were growing up, and that’s a source of pain for you, tell them anyway. If sometimes they don’t tell you back, tell them anyway.
This is NOT about getting our children to make us feel loved. We are the parent. It’s NOT our children’s job to fill up our neediness. We are going to have to get that addressed somewhere else. But it IS our job to build up their hearts.
Now, the second way, and maybe the most important way that we help our children know that they’re loved is by our time.
Lewis Smedes, a brilliant bible teacher wrote this about 25 years ago in his book “How Can it be all Right When Everything Else is all Wrong?” :
“I bought a brand new date book yesterday, the kind I use every year – spiral bound, black imitation leather covers wrapped around pages and pages of blank squares. Every spiral has a number to tell which day of the month I am in at the moment. Every square is a frame for one episode of my life. Before I’m through with the book, I will fill the squares with classes I teach, people with whom I ate lunch, everlasting committee meetings I sit through. And these are only the things I cannot afford to forget. I fill the squares too, with things I do not write down for me to remember: thousands of cups of coffee, some love making, some praying, and I hope, gestures to help to my neighbors. Whatever I do, it has to fit inside one of those squares on my date book. I live one square at a time. The four lines that make up the square are the walls that organize my life. Everything I do has to fit into one square. Each square has an invisible door that leads to the next square in line. There I will gain fill the timeframe that seals me; fill it with my busyness, just as I did the square before. As I get older, the squares seem to get smaller. One day, I will walk into a square that has no door. There will be no mysterious opening and no walking into an adjoining square. One of the squares will be terminal. I do not know what square it will be.”
A few years ago Lewis was putting up Christmas lights on his house – 81 years old, up on a ladder, putting lights on his house. He slipped, hit his head, went into a coma, and died a few days later. The final square, the one he wrote about over 30 years ago, came for him the week before Christmas.
The people who spoke the most unforgettable words at Dr. Smedes funeral were Lew’s son and daughter. What mattered to them most were not all the degrees he had, not his remarkable IQ, not his amazing gifts as a speaker, not any of the books that he’s written. What mattered to them was the single title: Dad. What mattered to them was that he had filled his squares really wisely.
I thought of how little all of his other successes would have meant to him if he had failed as a father. I thought of how this amazing man could have been tempted to fill up his squares with other things that were just so impressive, at the expense of what mattered most. I thought about how he filled up his squares wisely so that when that last one came, as it always comes, he was ready.
One day you will enter that square and so will I. And in between this day and that day, you have some squares to fill. No one knows how many you get. Nobody knows. But I know this: what you fill each square with is up to you. It’s not up to your boss, your spouse, or our culture. God gives this square and the one thing you choose is how you will fill it. If you are a mom or dad, be very careful how you will fill your squares. You can fill them with work, acquisition, hurrying, a thousand things to do, and maybe even some pretty impressive looking stuff if you want to. And your children may not even complain very much. They may learn to give up expecting that things will ever change, but they’ll know. They watch all the time. They know. No one in your life knows like your children know how you fill up your squares and what that says about what really matter to you.
The good news is that, starting today, you can fill your squares with memories and moments and traditions and rituals of love and laughter and generosity of spirit and time. You can fill them up really well so that one day, when you’ve filled your last square, your children will have that single belief engraved on their hearts: I was loved. I was loved.
* If you have not done so already, please be sure to read “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman.