I wore earplugs to my sons’ most recent youth football game.
Now I should let you know that while I tend to be on the reserved side, I’m not opposed to high-volume cheering at sporting events. Especially when my kids are participating, I can cheer my head off with the best of them.
But during the first game of this season, I noticed that while there was a lot of shouting happening in the stands, very little of it was actually cheering.
The crowd shrieked commands and censure.
“Get the ball!”
“Get your head in the game!”
“We can’t win like this, guys!”
“Keep your hands on the ball!”
“You HAVE to BLOCK!”
It pains me to say there was even cursing involved.
I knew I couldn’t bear listening to this for hours, week after week in the stands (hence the earplugs). I can’t even imagine what it must be like for the nine- and ten-year-old players. When I put myself in their shoes, I don’t think the sound of this ruckus from the crowd (of parents, no less!) would inspire me to keep striving to reach my potential.
I’m pretty sure it would instead catapult me toward frustration, defeat, and likely even resignation—all accompanied by more than a few tears.
As sad as I was to witness this young team being exposed to the danger of vigorous public criticism, I’m aware of an opposite yet still very real danger: the danger of vain flattery and excessive compliments.
After all, if every job is a “good job,” every performance is “wonderful,” every attempt is “great,” how will our children be inspired to strive for true excellence?
Indeed, too much praise can cause our positive words to lose their meaning altogether.
So where’s the middle ground?
If “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21), how can we make sure we’re speaking life to our kids?
6 Essentials for Speaking Life to Our Kids
1. Teach them what the Bible says about them.
There is no better guideline for healthy self-esteem than what God has to say about us. Our children need to know they were fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). They need to know they are precious to God and dearly loved (Isaiah 43:4). They need to know that God valued His relationship with them so much that He paid for it with His own Son’s life (John 3:16).
Faithfully sowing these truths and others like them into the hearts of our children will help them establish their identity on what really matters.
2. Tell them what you notice without constantly offering praise.
One important barometer of a child’s self-esteem is the attention of his parents. Just being noticed matters so much more than we realize. As an alternative to constant praise, statements like these pack a powerful punch:
“I noticed that you made your bed without being asked this morning.”
“I see that you’re working extra hard to be kind to your sister today.”
“I can tell you have been practicing faithfully this week.”
3. Focus on character more than appearance, performance, and talents.
Why do we praise children for their beauty, their abilities, and their intelligence, when they had absolutely no hand in making themselves that way? Praise their neatness; compliment their work ethic; rejoice in their perseverance. But we should resist the natural parental urge to praise them lavishly for those things that aren’t character-related.
4. Refuse to criticize publicly.
Just don’t do it. It accomplishes absolutely nothing of value. Your child’s heart and your relationship with her will be damaged, as will your reputation in the eyes of those who are observing you.
5. Tell the truth.
Our kids are excellent lie-detectors. They can tell what’s genuine and what’s not, and they can usually spot a fake a mile away. So it doesn’t really help for them to hear us say they’ve done a great job when they know they haven’t.
In our interactions with our children, it’s helpful to consider what truth they really need from us in any given moment, based on their circumstances and the condition of their hearts. Are they struggling? Maybe instead of false praise, they really need encouragement to persevere. Are they downhearted? Instead of empty flattery, perhaps they just need to be reminded of how valuable they are to us – not because of their accomplishments, but simply for who they are.
6. Aim to edify.
The word edify means “to build up,” and shares a common root with the word edifice. In Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul describes this process of growing up into spiritual maturity in Christ, as we speak the truth in love.
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Fellow Christian parent, this is our job. This is our high calling. To build up the hearts and souls of our children with the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, using life-giving words as we have opportunity.
Have you encountered a situation where parents are being overly and publicly critical toward their kids? How do you avoid this area of danger in your parenting? In what ways do you intentionally speak life to your kids?