One cold winter evening last week, Deb and my daughter Shalom were going out and leaving me home alone. Knowing that two-year-old Parker would not be happy at the meeting, Shalom decided to park him with the old codger. When she brought Parker into the kitchen and told him he was going to be staying with Big Papa, he took one look around the empty and boring old farm house and started grabbing for his mother. When she tried to free herself from his clutching hands, he uttered a desperate cry that sounded forlorn, like a pup being culled from the litter. He wanted Mama, not an old man who couldn’t even roll on the floor.
Instinctively, I knew just what to do. I sat down at the kitchen table and poured out several varieties of nuts. Picking up the cracker, I looked over my shoulder at the crying two-year-old and said, “Hey, Parker, let’s crack some nuts.” He instantly stopped crying and jumped up on a chair beside me, grabbing nuts in one hand and a nut cracker in the other. We spent the next hour creating a pile of shells and dining like two fat fox squirrels.
When the shelling got boring, I said, “Hey, Parker, lets roast some nuts.” We carried a handful over to the wood-burning stove and scattered them across the top. Pulling chairs up close, we took a poker and a spoon and busied ourselves turning the nuts and scooting them around to control the rate of heating. When they were roasted just right, we slid them off the top into a bowl and returned to the table where we juggled hot nuts as we continued shelling.
Some of the nuts were hickory nuts we had gathered in the woods. Their shell is thick and hard to crack, and the meat is even harder to dig out, coming out in little pieces with the aid of a pointed tool designed for just that purpose. Parker’s manipulation instinct kicked in and he was as happy as a popsicle-sucker in July.
We had a grand old time, and when Mama returned we were still sitting at the table having our squirrel dinner. Parker, with lots of hand gestures, immediately launched into an exciting tale about his experience, spoken in a strange language not yet documented by linguists. Mother was delighted that he was delighted, and I was delighted she had returned. I had eaten about 1000 calories beyond my daily limit.
It has been nearly three decades since my children were small, so I have forgotten much about the everyday ways of relating to them. But having 19 grandkids (and more on the way), I am constantly refreshed in my thinking. As I do what comes naturally, I remember relating to my children in precisely the same manner. Good parenting is not a set of principles we execute; it is instinctual nurturing.
Kids love to be involved. Write this on every wall in your house: Children love to be involved. I remember clearly involving my children in everything I did. If they were in the house, Deb involved them in all her activities. They were never “in the way.” Life was about them, and we strove to communicate all the wonders of life and love, training them to assume responsibility as adults.
Research now confirms what I have been saying and writing for 17 years: Positive affirmation used as a manipulative tool has negative consequences. Children have their worth affirmed by doing something worthy and by being a congenial part of adult activities. Children left to themselves bring their mother to shame (Proverbs 29:15). Children involved in daily life know they are valued because the big, important people talk to them, play with them, seek their assistance, and have mutual pleasure with them through shared experiences.
My children grew up with a strong sense of security and purpose because they knew they were valued for reasons beyond maternal instinct; they were making indispensable contributions to the quality of life of everyone around them.
When Justin splits firewood, he always splits some very small pieces that Parker can carry into the house. If he were just shoved out of the way while others carried firewood, he would feel diminished and rejected—leading to his acting out in negative behavior; but when he feels he is a part of the process, he is motivated to live within the social rules of the clan. He wants to stay on the good side of the ones in charge because they are the source of his deepest pleasure. You can gain momentary compliance with threats and intimidations, but to gain eternal, heart compliance you must become a child’s source of delight.