Thursday, February 28, 2008

horrible? I don't think so.

"I'm a horrible person."

It's the kind of statement calculated to make a parent's heart sink into their shoes.

My son Ben (7) was having a bad morning - grumbling, getting ready for school as slowly as possible, taking 10 minutes (really) to put on each piece of clothing. Usually happy and confident, he was obviously feeling grouchy and miserable.

Thoughts went through my mind: have we undermined Ben's confidence? Have we made some terrible mistake in our parenting? Have we destroyed his self-esteem or resilience by praising him too much / not enough? (Oh, the pitfalls of modern over-psychoanalysed parenting!)

What if he has childhood depression? What if he becomes self-destructive and suicidal as a teenager? What if he has a terrible relationship with us as an adult and never wants to speak to us again?

Ben's not the only one capable of catastrophic thinking.

I think one of the reasons I over-reacted is that I could hear myself in Ben's words. Like him, I'm a perfectionist, and every little blemish or difficulty is blown out of proportion. When you see one of your worst characteristics reflected in your child you'll do anything to prevent it.

So I went into parental overdrive: "You're not a horrible person! You're a wonderful boy! You're loving, kind, smart and funny! I love you!" True and helpful words, and worth saying - it's good for kids to know their parents think the world of them - but I wish I'd taken time to listen and think before I spoke.

Did I ever tell you I have an over-active mouth as well as an over-active imagination?

As I stood in the shower afterwards, I thought about all the ways I could have responded. About what a wonderful opportunity this was for reflective listening. Or for helping Ben to develop more resilient thinking. Or even better, to encourage him to see himself the way God sees him.

So as I helped Ben tie his shoes (he was holding his Pooh bear and had calmed down by this time) I said: "You know what you said earlier about being a horrible person? That's called catastrophic thinking. It's when something little goes wrong and you turn it into something really big. Like when you drop and break something and you say 'I always break everything.' I think what you really meant is that you were feeling tired and discouraged. Is that right?"

And, no doubt far more usefully, I also reminded him: "Did you know that the Bible says that you are 'fearfully and wonderfully made?' That God did a great job making you? That he made you exactly the way he wants you? That he has great plans for you? And that he loves you so much that he sent his one and only Son to die for you? He must love you a lot to have done that!"

Ben, of course, said "I know, Mum." But he was smiling again.

P.S. Of course, I could have just given Ben his teddy or a hug to begin with, and headed this whole thing off. But then I could spend all day second guessing myself!

I learnt a lot about teaching children (and myself) to think more resiliently and optimistically from Martin Seligman's The Optimistic Child, which I read about 5 years ago. But Seligman is only touching on something Christians should already know: to set our minds on things above, to retrain our minds to think God's thoughts after him. For the truest and most hopeful thoughts come straight from the Bible.

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