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Fighting for the Heart

How to keep your kids close.

My daughter has never uttered the words “I hate you” to me or her mother. I know plenty of parents have heard those words come spewing from their children’s mouths, and I know that it has cut them to their very core. To hear your own offspring, your babies, say such mean and hurtful words, would destroy anyone.

The closest my daughter has come to this is the phrase “You don’t love me!” Even that was difficult. Hearing her say it was challenging. It challenged everything we had ever told her and everything we lived. It set me on edge. My initial reaction was anger. Fortunately, my wife was right beside me. She just gently placed her hand on my arm. We shared a look. It was only a second but spoke volumes. I took a deep breath and calmly, but firmly, told her that she was never to say that again. There is nothing in this world that she could do to make her parents stop loving her. If it is up to us at all, our children will never doubt our love for them; they will never doubt that we will fight for their hearts until our very last breath.

She knew we meant it, because she’s never said anything like that again. 

There is a battle raging, and the prize is your child’s heart. You are not the only one who wants that prize. Whoever is able to conquer your child’s heart will have their allegiance, their time and their pocketbook.

Advertisers know this. In 1983, companies spent $100 million marketing to kids. Today, they’re spending $17 billion a year. Eight to 12-year-olds spend $30 billion of their own money each year and influence another $150 billion of their parents’ spending.

Peers know this. Half (51 percent) of students surveyed in The State of the Nation’s Youth say they feel pressured to look a certain way and that it creates problems for them; 17 percent say it creates major problems. Fifty four percent say that they feel as if no one understands them and 42 percent say that loneliness or feeling left out creates problems. Thirty five percent of teens feel pressured to drink or do drugs, and 34 percent say that they are pressured to engage in sexual activity.

Whether you are aware of it or not, pop culture is trying to raise your kids. It is pouring its guidance into them at all times. This is not meant to be a scare tactic. It is not meant to be alarmist. It’s just reality. The numbers don’t lie. Your students are constantly bombarded with ads, information, marketing techniques, TV programs, music videos, video games, streaming music, movies, etc., that impact their worldview. It is time that we start fighting for our kids’ hearts.

A recent study done by Philips Consumer Communications called Let’s Connect examined the communication patterns and content of middle school students and their families. The findings are very disturbing.

It found that most parents (58 percent) and almost three-quarters of kids (73 percent) spend less than one hour a day talking to each other. Even worse, nearly 46 percent of the kids and 27 percent of the parents say they talk to each other less than 30 minutes a day.

If parents and students aren’t talking, then they aren’t listening. If they aren’t listening, then they can’t understand. Parents said the top three priorities of their students are fun, friends and looks.

While these are important to kids, here’s what the middle schoolers listed as their top priorities as their futures, their schoolwork and family matters.

Only 20 percent of students said that it was easy to talk with their parents about important matters.

I realize that this study is in regard to a specific age group, but I can’t help but think that there are lessons to be learned from this. We, parents, must be intentional about what we do to connect and fight for the hearts of our kids. We should never give our kids reasons to doubt or be uncertain of our resolve, of our love, of our devotion to them.

Here are some ways for us as parents to begin fighting for our children's hearts. 

Earn Their Trust

I often hear parents talk about their tweens or teens doing something to break their trust. Children lie about where they are going, teens come home 30 minutes after curfew, their children wreck the car or get a speeding ticket. This happens quite often (I had my moments as well). There’s, however, something far more important that isn’t being discussed. It is important for a child to earn their parent’s trust, but it is far more important for the parents to earn the trust of the child. If we prove ourselves to be unworthy of our children’s trust, how will they learn? How will they know when we are telling the truth? How will they be able to trust our love? Our guidance? How will they be able to learn how to earn trust? 

Our ability to live out what we teach (or practice what we preach) is imperative to our children’s ability to do so as well.

I have had parents come to me complaining that their children are involved with recreational drug use, and they admit to having done it as well. They come seeking counsel on what to do. My response is “This doesn’t surprise me.” Children learn from their parents. They watch what we do and listen to what we say. Now this scenario may seem extreme to you, but it’s the perfect example and the logical conclusion of “Do as I say, not as I do.” 

We have to be intentional about earning our students’ trust. If we tell them there is a certain reward or consequence for certain behavior, then we have to be ready to back up our words with actions. 

They must understand that we aren’t going to turn our backs on them, even if that means we have to swallow our pride and be the one to take the first step. They are our children, and they must know (without a doubt) that if the whole world turns their back on them, we will be right there standing beside them and sometimes standing in front.

Really Listen

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone while that person is doing something else? It’s annoying. Just ask my wife. 

Your tweens or teens feel the same way.

Talking with teens over the years, there have been a few constant complaints and one of them is the idea that parents just aren’t listening, really listening, to what their chilren are saying. And I know that this can be unfair in a lot of cases. But let’s be honest, how many times have we tried to multitask and it backfired? That’s because to have a real conversation, true and open dialogue, both parties need to be fully engaged.

Putting down the paper (or whatever it is) to connect with your children shows them that what they have to say is valued. It shows them that you believe their lives and opinions matter. It also shows them how to have a mature conversation. If you want your children to listen to you, it starts with you listening to them.

Ask open-ended questions such as: “How do you feel about…?” “What do you think about…?” Doing so allows them to learn to express their opinions and thoughts and gives them a place to think through some tough issues in a safe place. 

Don’t pounce when they express a thought that you don’t agree with. Many times, tweens or teens will say something to see your reaction. So listen to what they’ve said, think through why they may have said it, and then respond. It always helps to dig deeper. Asking why they feel that way is a good place to start. We raise our children to be independent and to think for themselves, so don’t punish them when they start to do that very thing. Allow them some room for differing thought and guide them to a place where you both are comfortable.

These conversations can be difficult and uncomfortable as parents, but the lessons learned for our children will carry them through life. These conversations were allowed to take place in my life, and afforded me the opportunity to express my thoughts knowing that my parents valued what I thought. My thoughts weren’t always the best or brightest, but I was given the space to talk through them with someone (my parents) that was truly invested in me becoming a mature adult.

Celebrate Wins

So many times I have counseled with parents and tween or teens, and all they mention is the bad stuff going on. Little Johnny or Susie is doing this or that wrong, my parents are bad because of… Now, I’m not saying that bad behaviors shouldn’t be corrected. Love without intention isn’t love at all, it's enablement. That is not the point. The point is to celebrate the good things! I’ve often been told to make sure to reinforce the positive rather than dwelling on the negative. 

Too often, the negative becomes our default position. In this way, we teach our children that that’s the only attention they are worth receiving. A parent who berates a child for not receiving an “A+” on an “A” paper, a mother who uses words like "slut" and "whore" when talking to their daughter, a father who lives vicariously through the sporting activities of his children are all examples of the wrong kind of attention. Some examples are extreme, but most are mundane. We don’t want our kids to believe that negativity is all they deserve.

So CELEBRATE! Sometimes, that grade that doesn’t look “good enough” was worked for very hard. I learned this early on in my childhood. When I did my best, whatever the outcome, my parents were proud. 

My junior year of high school, I took a math class that was difficult for me. No matter how hard I tried (and I did) I just could not grasp the concepts. I went in for after-school tutoring, and I did as much of the extra credit works as I could--I tried everything! But no matter what I did, I always failed. When the final report cards came out, I was afraid to see my grade. So imagine my surprise when I opened it and saw a D-. I could not believe my eyes! I went to my teacher and asked what happened. My final grade came to a 59 percent, but he said because I worked so hard, he gave me an extra 1 percent for the effort. I was very proud of that D-, and so were my parents. 

 I’ll be honest: Not one single grade was celebrated more than that D-. I have never forgotten that.

Wins look differently for every person and every student. Make sure that you take the time to recognize and celebrate the wins in your child’s life. You never know how one single win can alter a child’s life.

Live a Better Story

This tip comes from Donald Miller, author of Blue like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. He contends that many people act out and rebel because they aren’t living the life that was intended for them. 

In his book Blue like Jazz he tells the story of a father struggling to reach his daughter. She was rebelling against the family until Donald Miller gave her the idea of finding a better way to live. They decided to build an entire orphanage in a third world country. They raised the money and went over to help build it as well. The transformation in the girl’s life was a complete 180 degrees!

Not many of us can raise $30,000 to build an orphanage, but all of us can find a way to make our communities better. Find a cause and get behind it! Involve your tween or teen and bring them out of their little world for a few hours every week or month. Show them that they have a responsibility to the people around them locally and globally. There is a saying that I love, “Act locally, think globally.”

As a junior in high school, my dad went to Port-au-Prince, Haiti with a humanitarian medical group. I didn’t really understand why he became so engrossed with it until I went with him for the first time. I was horrified by some of what I saw and fell in love with others. I can tell you that it changed me forever. I never thought about things the same after that. 

When you see true poverty, it changes you. When you see children walking around naked because they have no clothes or people starving or dying from malnutrition, it opens your eyes and makes you realize that life isn’t all about you.

I’m not telling you that I became Mother Teresa, but I can say that my experience in Haiti throughout the years has altered my worldview. And now that worldview is being passed on to our kids.

Our daughter hasn’t gone to Haiti yet (she will in a few years) but she has come with us to feed men and women who are homeless. She’s helped collect food for Operation Food Search and participated in packing parties for Operation Christmas Child. She recently donated most of her toys to children who don't have toys, because she said she didn’t need them anymore.

She isn’t perfect and still can get wrapped up in petty stuff, like all of us can and do, but she sees opportunities to serve and she does it. 

Giving our kids the chance to make a difference teaches them to honor and respect all human life.  It gives them purpose and meaning. It tells them that they play an important part in our world, and if they aren’t playing their part then the story isn’t being told properly.

You want your tween or teen to start living a different way? Stop talking about it, and go live it with them!

Seize the Moment

This is simply just being aware of your child’s clues and hints.  If they act like they need to talk, just ask. 

Take a Saturday afternoon and spend some time doing something that they enjoy doing. Rent a new movie and watch it together. Go see them play or perform in their favorite sport or activity. 

Whatever it is, just make sure that you seize every minute! Because one day, if you’re not careful, you’re going to look up and that child that used to run into your arms after work will be a young adult moving away to college.

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