Scripture instructs us in Colossians chapter three, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” as well as in Ephesians, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

But often instead of speaking the truth in love, we unintentionally corner our kids with “no-win” statements, or questions that are impossible to answer. For example, who hasn’t asked their child in a moment of frustration and exasperation, “HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU NOT TO… [insert favorite pet peeve here]!

How many times have I told you - there's an art to criticism

If we step back and think for a moment about what we have said in this kind of situation–in fact, what I have often said in anger–we realize that this kind of question puts children in a verbal corner, a no-win situation; it discourages them, or provokes them. Here are several reasons why:

  1. Because you have just been yelling, your child is too frightened to answer calmly, “I’m sorry, you have reminded me to pick up my toys lots of times, Dad.”
  2. Your child is ashamed confused, and thinks, “What is the right answer- 10, 24, 57, 106?”
  3. Your child feels guilty and shuts down, thinking- “I don’t know, but I bet it’s a lot of times. I keep messing up.”
  4. Your child is in shock; she doesn’t know how to react. She is hoping you calm down.

This does not mean that parents need to walk on eggshells and be overly concerned about hurting our children’s feelings. (When we tell children they cannot do something they would like to do, or we simply correct them for disobedience, their feelings will be hurt; it also reveals their sin nature.) Ideally we need to exercise self-control, discern the child’s intent, and acknowledge what our child is thinking and feeling, even when we are extremely frustrated ourselves.

A second type of “no-win” situation is when we try to direct our child’s emotions in the wrong way. We all can sense that a young child desires to please his parent. But when we use a parent’s potential disappointment as negative motivation, then the child feels that he must obey, otherwise parental affection or time with him will be withheld. This approach makes parental love conditional, which does not make the child secure. For example, imagine taking your son to the movies. He is making a fuss, spilling popcorn, asking for more snacks, and talking too much. You have already taken him to the bathroom twice. You are getting frustrated, but you know you shouldn’t raise your voice in the theater. So you lean over and lash out through clenched teeth, “If you keep acting like this, your mother and I won’t take you to the movies ever again.” First of all, this statement too broad and is something you would not likely implement. But even worse, you have projected mom’s disappointment onto the child. (As parents we like to invoke the other parent as a back up!) This strategy may work in the short term. Your son may realize he needs to fix his behavior immediately, or you will take him out of the movie. But without more conversation, this approach does not teach the child that behaving in the movie theater is the right thing to do out of consideration for others. As parents, we are often more concerned about being embarrassed in front of other parents than we are about training our child in maturity, so we short circuit addressing the child’s heart.

A third way we unintentionally corner our children is the famous, “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!” after the child has done something which unexpectedly causes a mess or worse. When I was a young boy, I realized that you could put a cup of water in the freezer and a few hours later have a cup of ice. I was fascinated with ice, and since it was a hot summer day, I filled a cup full of water and put it in the freezer. There was only one problem- it wasn’t a plastic cup, it was a drinking glass! A couple hours later, when I pulled the glass out of the freezer, the glass had cracked in several places (thankfully it did not shatter and injure me!). I don’t remember my mom or dad being there at the time. But if one of them had shouted “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!?” my only answer would have been, “I wanted a cup of ice”. I didn’t know that water expands as it freezes. As parents we often blame our children for not foreseeing consequences which they are too young to predict. With infants and toddlers this can be humorous (when the child turns over the bowl of dog food in the kitchen), but we expect our children to be more aware as they grow. Often our expectations can be unrealistic.

A fourth way we verbally corner our children (and this can happen when they become adults, too) is by shouting, “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DID THAT!” This may stun the child enough to get her to think about what she has done and to realize that her parent is really upset–but the damage is not worth it. In effect you have shut down any communication and distanced yourself from your child. In the moment we are verbalizing our own emotions, but it comes across to the child as intense disapproval. Think about what a young child might perceive or internalize from this kind of statement. Probably his or her internal dialogue is “That was a dumb idea. My parent thinks I’m stupid. I’m not valuable.” Parents corner their adult children as well. Even with humorous intentions a statement such as “I can’t imagine how you came from this family” communicates that an individual is seen as the one black sheep. A woman in her 60’s told me several years ago that while in college, she would routinely tell her father about her classes, her ideas, and her future plans. He usually responded with, “Now if you were smart, you would do this….” Her dad was trying to communicate wisdom, but she was always left with the implication that she wasn’t smart–and that from her own father! If a family reputation is threatened by a teen or young adult’s major mistake, a parent might exclaim, “I can’t believe you put me in this situation,” or “I can’t believe you are putting our family through this.” This communicates shame and can make the young adult feel responsible for all the various ways other family members see their own reputation! This burden is too much to bear, especially when a younger child sees his parents as the most important people in his life.

What to Do?

Many of us have said these statements, or words similar to them in our parenting journey. Parenting is not for the faint or heart. Parenting quickly shows you how selfish you are. How can we redirect our words so as to not corner our children? It helps me to slow down and think about responding to my children not in a single sentence, but in a two part or three part statement. When I use several sentences, it gives me the opportunity to affirm my children, or to “sandwich” discipline and correction between two statements of love. Call it the “Love & Truth” sandwich. (that name is not original to me, by the way.)

Image result for Love & Truth Sandwich

Both of my daughters love to snack while watching TV (as I do). They often leave wrappers, napkins, plates, or cups on the end table in the living room. Instead of saying, “How many times have I told you both to clean up your dishes!?” in my experience, it has been more helpful to slow down and separate my statements. I could take one child aside individually and say, “I know you like snacking while watching a movie. I do too. But we all need to take our dishes and napkins to the sink right after we are finished watching the movie. Please try to do that next time, otherwise Mom and I will reduce the TV time.” For my kids this change of wording makes a big difference. I established commonality with my child by saying “I do too” and, “we all need to…” I included a potential consequence, but not an absolute threat. By slowing down my response I am forced to think about how I model behavior for my children.

It is hard for any parent to slow down enough in the moment and talk calmly when we are frustrated. That is why we need the mind and Spirit of Christ to do so in love (1 Corinthians 2:16). With God’s help we can learn our children individually and instruct them in the ways of the Lord- as long as we also, are willing to learn.

Helpful books: Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Grace Filled Parenting