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Love & Respect in the family
The Respect Parents Desire; The Love Children Need
By Emerson Eggerichs
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Emerson Eggerichs
All rights reserved.
If Kids Would Only Cooperate, We All Would Be Great Parents!
It was a hot summer day in 1986. We were driving home in our van from a refreshing and enjoyable vacation. All was serene as we basked in the glow of togetherness—until the last two hundred miles. Rather suddenly, Jonathan, ten; David, eight; and Joy, four, started squabbling over this and that, and despite our requests to "cease and desist," the verbal battles continued until we halted at a rest stop to eat lunch in a picnic area. We had hoped the bickering was over, but that apparently was not the case. Jonathan continued to give Joy a bad time and David just grumbled at them both. Finally, as the decibels and tension reached optimum pitch, Sarah had had enough. She rose from our picnic table and announced: "I want to quit!" Then she simply walked off and headed over to another empty picnic table to be alone. I quickly corralled the kids and herded them to the restrooms for a bathroom break.
Sarah was sitting on a picnic table and noticed a group of bikers who had stopped for a bit of shade and some favorite libations. She watched the tattooed figures with combat boots and sleeveless jean jackets get on their motorcycles, rev their engines, and then speed away. At that moment she remembers thinking, I wonder what it would be like to ride off into the sunset and leave these parenting burdens behind? She did not really want to abandon the family, but she recalls feeling so discouraged with being a parent that she had this irrational fleeting thought—and it scared her.
I returned with the kids, got them into the van, and then walked over to the picnic table where Sarah began sharing her feelings. The bottom line was that she had had her fill. For what seemed like an eternity of silence (it was probably about a minute), we both stared into the distance. It was time for the man of the family to speak up. I wanted to try to relieve the situation with a little humor and say something like: "Don't you dare leave by yourself! Let's go together!" But the look on Sarah's face stopped me. There was a strained silence while we headed back to the car. I could see she was really hurting at the core of her being. With shoulders drooping and tears in her eyes, she said: "It's just not working. I feel like such a failure."
I tried to give some words of comfort, but she was too numb. At that moment she felt totally defeated; and truth be told, I felt pretty much the same.
As we discussed this story recently, Sarah confessed: "Apart from telling you how I felt, I never mentioned this episode to any of my friends until many years later. I just felt too guilty for having such intense feelings of just wanting to give up."
I am sure you could match this episode from The Eggerichs Family Crazy Cycle with stories of your own. I recall a young mother who was attending a Family Crazy Cycle workshop I was giving. She came up afterward and told me that things had been truly crazy with her three kids earlier that day, and finally she asked her nine-year-old son, one of the chief offenders, "Do you want to meet Jesus?" Before he could answer, she added, "Because if you don't stop this, you are going to see Him right now!"
Of course, this mom was not really planning anything that drastic, but she was at Wit's End Corner and had to say something to send a message, just as Sarah felt when for a split second she imagined climbing on a Harley and leaving her family in the dust. We all know how it feels. If only kids would cooperate, it could be so simple. But every parent knows it is not that simple. Again and again parents are left trying to figure out what is really going on when a child acts up, and no matter what they do, it only seems to make him act up all the more.
So what do I suggest? First, no matter what it is—a minor or major squabble, a dramatic outburst, or maybe whining that just continues nonstop—do not be afraid to admit: "The Family Crazy Cycle is starting to spin."
Note the Family Crazy Cycle diagram on page 1: Without love (or perceiving what he thinks should be love) your child reacts negatively. When your child does not cooperate or misbehaves in any number of ways, you feel disrespected. Without respect you can (and often do) react negatively in ways that feel even more unloving to your child. Naturally, your child reacts by stepping up his disagreeable behavior—the whining, the dawdling, whatever he can do to let you know he is feeling unloved—and round and round it can go.
As for our vacation trip gone sour, I do not believe the children were feeling unloved; they were just being kids who had been cooped up in a car too long. They were siblings in typical conflict: Jonathan wanted to read his book; Joy wanted Jonathan's attention; Jonathan became irritated when Joy would not leave him alone. David became angry because as he tried to draw a picture, Joy would hit his elbow and mess up his picture.
The problem was they did not respond to our persistent efforts to get them to stop. Sarah and I definitely felt disrespected and were not quite sure how to deal with the situation. When kids do not listen to parents, at some level, parents feel disrespected.
We have since discovered that there are three questions that are helpful to ask when the Family Crazy Cycle starts to crank up:
1. Is my child feeling unloved?
2. Am I feeling disrespected?
3. How will I parent God's way regardless?
In this section on the Family Crazy Cycle, we are looking at the first two questions. We will look at that all-important third question in part 2: "The Family Energizing Cycle" and in part 3: "The Family Rewarded Cycle." So let's dig a little deeper into when and why a child might feel unloved and when and why you—the loving parent—might feel disrespected.
Concerning the first question, "Is my child feeling unloved?" I want to stress that many times a child is not necessarily feeling "unloved." It is entirely possible that he is acting this way out of childish irresponsibility, selfishness, or even open defiance. He is unhappy, he is just not getting his way, and he is letting you know it. On the other hand, there are times when, from your child's point of view, he needs some love right now, at least some attention. He may be asking for your love in a childish, clumsy way, but that is what he wants. You are his main source of love. He needs your love and is always looking for it in one way or another.
Let me illustrate. One day when she was almost five, Joy was acting whiny, claiming it was because she was sick. She wanted me to lie down with her, and while I had a lot of sermon preparation to do, I set my irritation aside and decided to do so, at least for a few minutes. As we lay there, she said, "Give me a hug." I responded: "So that's the real issue. You just needed a little love time." I will never forget her reply: "Of course, and you should know that." I gave Joy her hug, several in fact, and she was instantly "healed." A few minutes later she scampered off happily to play.
I learned something that day that helped me many other times when parenting Joy and her two brothers, David and Jonathan. I learned the importance of asking the first question: Is my child feeling unloved? But I also began to get in tune with another question that was still forming in my soul during those early years: Am I feeling disrespected? Often I knew I felt disrespected, but I was not sure if I should have these feelings since I was supposed to be the mature adult. I wondered if I was just being egotistical and touchy. Maybe the kids were just being kids, and I was too self-focused and sensitive.
On that first turn of the Family Crazy Cycle, when our children are acting less than positive, we must avoid the knee-jerk reaction that causes us to think: This kid is not being respectful. Children are supposed to obey their parents. I am going to have to put a stop to this! Parents know instinctively their children should respect them. Most parents also know the fifth commandment: "Honor your father and your mother" (Exodus 20:12). The apostle Paul echoed God's commandment in Ephesians 6:1–2 when he wrote: "Children, obey your parents.... honor your Father and mother."
With all this scriptural backup to our parental authority, we can feel the pressure to make sure our kids are obedient, reacting too sternly, or in frustration or anger. This is an example of how parents can start the Family Crazy Cycle by overreacting to kids' just being kids. Our rigidity and negativity are perceived as unloving to our children, who then feel unfairly judged, and now we have entered the Family Crazy Cycle.
Once you admit to yourself, "Yes, I am feeling disrespected," then you can ask, "Should I feel disrespected?" This is a crucial question that you should not answer without thinking it through. A parent must guard against taking offense against a child who has no disrespectful intentions. Irresponsibility is not the same as disrespect. Granted, I will not deny that irresponsible actions can feel disrespectful. For example, you instruct your child to be careful with his milk cup, but somehow his little elbow knocks his cup over. It is a critical moment. You may feel disrespected. Why can't your child be more careful? But this is the right moment to repeat an old saying: "Don't cry over spilled milk!" Yes, the child made a mess, but kids will be kids. Irresponsible at times, yes, but do not confuse this with disrespect.
"But you just don't know how many messes I wipe up each day." Yes, I do. Sarah and I reared three children, all of whom had a knack for spilling their milk. Did we respond perfectly each time? No. In fact, Sarah recalls her repeated prayer: "Lord, help me respond, not react."
In fact, there are times when—just as a child may be reacting out of childishness and not because he is feeling unloved, so a parent often reacts out of impatience, frustration, and just plain exhaustion. Cleaning up one more mess of spilled milk can put us over the edge. In that moment we may not be feeling disrespected, but we are negatively reacting, nonetheless. The important thing to remember is, whether we are feeling disrespected or just fed up with cleaning up spills, our harsh reactions feel unloving to our children ... and now we have started a Family Crazy Cycle reaction.
At those times we all need to pray that simple prayer: "Lord, help me respond, not react." Our reactions reflect our sin nature, but asking for God's help calms our hearts. As parents we need to show compassion, the kind the psalmist described when he compared the Lord's compassion to the compassion a father is to have on his children (Psalm 103:13). The Lord is our model for showing compassion.
If you saw the movie Hook, you may remember the scene where Peter Banning (played by Robin Williams) is on a plane with his son, Jack, and he becomes frustrated when Jack keeps irritating everyone within reach or earshot. Finally, Peter says: "What in the #%$* is the matter with you? When are you gonna stop acting like a child?" Jack responds, "But I am a child," and his father snaps back, "Grow up!"
While the scene is supposed to be humorous, Peter Banning was not parenting well at that moment. I had a father who was something like Robin Williams's character, and I know from personal experience how a child can be provoked and exasperated, with his parent's unloving behavior eventually deflating his spirit.
One such moment is very vivid in my mind. When I was not quite three years old, I saw my dad attempting to strangle my mom. I rushed at him and began pounding him with my little fists. He slapped me on the head, and I sank down, crying. He let go of Mom, and afterward she wept. This episode, among others, often led me to ask myself as a young child, "Does my daddy love me?"
As time went on and my dad continued to react to me in ways that felt unloving, I acted disrespectfully plenty of times. I did not understand all the dynamics of what was going on, but I was actually trying to get my dad to wake up to my need for his reassuring love. It rarely happened. My childhood years often saw my dad leaving me bewildered and feeling rejected.
As a little boy, I felt I never could do anything right. When I tried to help my dad with some project around the house but failed to do what he wanted, this bugged him to no end. I can still hear his words ringing in my ears: "You are useless! If I want anything done, I have to do it myself!"
Not surprisingly, I wet the bed until I was eleven, and I would have closed off my spirit to my dad completely had it not been for my mom. When I went to her with my hurt, frustration, and anger at my dad, she would say: "Well, your daddy doesn't know how to be a dad because when he was three months old, his daddy died. He grew up without a daddy. So he doesn't know how to do this."
Somehow that answer seemed to help me get through my childhood, but as I entered the teen years, my mother could clearly see my home life with my father was impairing my development as a young man. She pursued sending me to military school. My dad did not protest (I presume because he foresaw too many hassles with me as a teenager). From age thirteen to eighteen I attended military school, and at age sixteen, when I placed my faith in Christ as my Lord and Savior, receiving Him into my heart, I came to see and believe that God caused "all things to work together" for my good (Romans 8:28).
Because of my own hurts I am able to understand the internal struggles and needs of a child who feels unloved. My mother was very loving, and this made all the difference for me as a child, but because of how my father treated me, I can empathize with the many children who feel misunderstood and unloved and who never really intend to be disrespectful.
Unfortunately, I did not always apply that empathy as a parent. Fast-forward to when I was a pastor, speaking at a Christian summer camp. I was about to give the evening message, and my son David, who was around age ten, was misbehaving because he wanted to do something that we did not have time to do at the moment. I distinctly remember feeling: This child is purposely defying me. He is showing me disrespect to retaliate for not getting his way.
I took David out to our car, where I hoped to reason with him. He sat in the backseat; I sat in the front. I tried to get him to talk but got only cold silence, which made me feel more and more disrespected. Finally, I angrily bawled him out for his disrespect, but that only made David more convinced I was being unfair and unloving. He stared out the window with no remorse or apology—only silence—and it ended in a stalemate. I had to speak in a few minutes, so I had David accompany me to the auditorium, where I addressed the crowd as best I could, all the while feeling like a complete hypocrite because of my horrible parenting. What is fascinating about this episode is that while I remember it vividly, David does not recall any of it whatsoever and does not believe it damaged him. It seems that our kids do not always retain much of what we guiltily dredge up from our memories, but what they do oftentimes recall as unfair or hurtful, we remember not at all. Welcome to parenting!
As I reflect on that scene where I blew it with David, it never occurred to me that he may have been feeling unloved. Perhaps he just wanted time with me and was feeling left out. If I had addressed the situation with that understanding, could this conflict have been avoided? It is hard to be sure. David could be stubborn about wanting his own way, especially at that age. But one thing is for sure: my angry outburst accusing him of being disrespectful did not help him open his heart to me.
There are many other incidents I will share of times when Sarah and I mistakenly shamed our children for what we thought was disrespect. As Sarah and I have discussed these past situations, she has observed: "I am reminded how we failed to slow down and try to decode. What I remember is that too often we reacted immediately. We did not wait to think it through and respond later. We did not take a couple of minutes to collect our thoughts and calm our emotions."
Excerpted from Love & Respect in the family by Emerson Eggerichs. Copyright © 2013 Emerson Eggerichs. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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