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Making Rules that Work

This is a follow up from Rules Without Relationship…

You making rules doesn’t automatically make things work out well. Making rules is essential. It’s the starting gate for raising kids who will grow to be healthy, whole, contributing adults. You’ve got to have boundaries, and that means you’ve got to have rules. They’ve got to be good ones, though, or they’ll never do what rules are supposed to do, which is provide security, consistency, order. Sometimes, how you make the rules is as important as the rules you make. So let’s do some thinking about how to make good rules.

The first thing to consider is the age of your kids. Young kids need a different process than older kids. Very young kids don’t need a formal process. Because very young kids don’t really get language yet. So it does no good to sit them down and tell them what the rules are. They won’t get it no matter how compassionate and articulate you are. They learn the rules by what happens to them when they violate them – by experience. This is one of their primary jobs in the first year or two of life. They are designed by God to be explorers and experimenters. This is how they learn what they can and cannot do. Usually, they learn this without any language beyond the one word, “No.” So don’t list the rules on the fridge for them, and don’t explain why the rule is there and in their best interest. It’s a waste of your breath and their time. And they’ve got stuff to do.

But once they can engage in conversation (not just talk; actually engage in conversation), they can begin to “get” rules. Before that time, they need to hear, “No! We don’t do that,” when they break a rule. They may need to heart it 200,000 times. A day. But once they can begin to reason well enough to have a conversation, you can start talking about rules. Not a hundred rules. A few. Keep the list manageable for them and you. There’s no golden number. Just remember that the best number is probably less than you may want to have. In this, less is more.

When your kid is at this stage of development, where you are routinely having conversations with them, engage them in a conversation about rules. “Who makes the rules in your house?” The answer should be, “Mommy and Daddy,” or, “Mommy does,” or, “Daddy does,” in a single parent home. Start there. Who gets to make the rules is YOU.

There is a broken school of thought that believes the child should make the rules and the parents should figure out how to guide the kids toward acceptable behavior through the use of these child-made rules. The premise is that it’s just so mean to make rules and enforce them on kids. Won’t that make them angry and rebellious? No. Not if you do this thing right. If you’re still making all the rules and handing them down from your parental authority when your kids are 9 or 10, the anger and rebellion thing will come into play. But young kids aren’t benefited from making their own rules. Generally, they can’t make good rules. They don’t have the background, experience or neurology for it. They can benefit from having input into the process, but don’t expect more of them than they’re capable of coming across with.

Before you attempt this conversation, you and your spouse need to decide what the rules are going to be. Even in a divorce situation with shared custody, it would be wise for both parents to have a talk about what the rules are going to be. This will be difficult in many situations, impossible in others. But if you can do it, it will be so much in the interest of the kids(s). Living under two sets of rules, one at one parent’s and another at the other parent’s produces confusion at best, and at worst, sets the kid(s) up to learn how to play the system.

Whatever your marital situation, you need to talk with your spouse or ex-spouse about what you will agree on for the substance of rules at your house before you have a talk with the kid(s).

Boil it down to the most basic rules that will provide safety and security for everybody in the family. What falls into the category of, “That will never be OK”? You need a rule for what that thing (or those things) is/are. You may have several in this category. What falls into the category of, “This will always happen in our family”? There’s got to be a rule for those things.

Make rules that are about behaviors, not attitudes. You can much more easily (and accurately) judge a behavior than you can an attitude. So don’t make rules about the kind of attitudes you require your kids to have. That’s a backfire waiting to happen. Make rules about behaviors.

Many rules will be connected with chores. These are behaviors, so they can be measured, and that’s good. I found a good resource on the interwebs for this: I like how they’ve broken things down by age development.

But please don’t lay out 200 chores for your kids and make a rule for every one of them. Decide what you think they’re capable of doing (even doing poorly), and make a rule that we all do our chores. That should be enough.

When your kids begin to develop more cognitive skill, about age 9 or 10, (“about” being the operative word) the conversation changes. There’s more dialogue. The kids should begin to get more input. Be open to their suggestions, but come to the table with rules that you will introduce into the conversation.

When your kids are teens, you’ll need to be creative, thoughtful and non-combative. That last compound word is really important. You don’t want this conversation to become a fight. You don’t want it to spark more friction. You’ve already got plenty of that. So be calm and non-combative. This conversation about rules isn’t a chance for you to punish your teen with another rule. If you can’t be calm and non-combative, you probably shouldn’t have the meeting. Strike “probably.” If you can’t be calm and non-combative, you shouldn’t have the meeting.

The nature of rules changes as your kids get older. Older kids should generally need fewer rules. Especially if you’ve been working rules with them for the previous years. Even a few previous years. The rules still need to be about behaviors, but you don’t target the same behaviors for a 5 yr. old and a 16 yr. old. Their needs and their capabilities are vastly different. In fact, you may want to consider reviewing your rules about every 6 months to see if they’re still worthy and valid. If you discover they’re not, can them. Kids outgrow rules like they outgrow sneakers.

You’ll notice I’m not including any specific rules you should make for your kids. Here’s why: I don’t know your kids. Rules are best when they’re forged with specific kids and specific goals in mind.

I’ve got one more big thing to talk about, which I’ll leave until next time. But there’s this one thing to close with, that should have been at the front end. P R A Y. Ask God to make you wise. He wants to. Ask Him to help you work in productive ways with your kids as you set rules. He wants to do this.

Don’t start any part of this process without prayer. It’s way too hard for anybody to do on the basis of their innate senses. No mortal is that smart. No offense, but that includes you. And me.

Outraged and Heartbroken

My favorite blog is Church and Culture by James Emery White. In the 5 or 6 years that I’ve been getting his blog, he’s had maybe 2 that didn’t deepen my well and provoke me to think. He’s a deep thinker and a brilliant mind.

This morning, his blog outraged me and broke my heart. I recommend you read it for yourself at:

If it doesn’t outrage you and break your heart, let me know.

In our 24/7 linked and connected world, White raises an issue that should be making every follower of Christ outraged and brokenhearted. In fact, Christian or not, every person who has an ounce of concern for the world and the future of our kids ought to be put on high alert by what he writes.

In case you didn’t break away when you came to the web address, I’ll give you a thumbnail sketch of what he wrote, and then you need to click on the address and read it for yourself. “Ready for the Millstones” is about child pornography and child sexual abuse. It’s not the kind of thing most of us look for to read over breakfast and enrich our day. And it’s way not what I’ve come to expect from the New York Times. (Sorry. That was political.) You’ll have to read it to see what I mean.

The section that most disturbed me is what Sarah Chang wrote in an article she wrote for the NYT about her first child pornography case. Her coworkers warned her to view the videos with the sound off.

She turned the volume up as high as she could, but all she heard was silence. The five-year-old girl said nothing; she didn’t even sob. And that’s what she found in video after video—silent suffering.

She later learned that this is a typical reaction of young sexual abuse victims. Psychiatrists say the silence conveys their sense of helplessness, which is also why they are reluctant to report the incidents and why their tendency is to accommodate their abusers. Their helplessness is rooted in the complete breach of trust they’ve experienced because, all too often, their abusers are people they expected would protect them. 

I’m struggling to extend grace to the perpetrators. It seems so heinous, so inhumane, to do this to a child. Unthinkably so. These are often children as young as age 3.

White doesn’t just raise an alarm. He gives some useful commonsense steps for Christians (anyone, actually) to take toward responding to this abhorrent and now pandemic issue. I leave you to read them (and then act on them). Go back up and open Church and Culture and read it for yourself. It will take you less time than you give my normal posts. And I think it may ignite your heart in an uncommon way. It did mine.

Rules Without Relationship = Rebellion

Dick Day and Josh McDowell teamed up to write one of my favorite books on parenting about 25 years ago, entitled, How To Be A Hero To Your Kids. You can get it for peanuts as a Kindle e-book, or you can get it in print for quite a few more peanuts. It would be a really good addition to any parent’s library.

In it, they use my favorite parenting phrase: Rules without relationship equal rebellion. That one phrase is worth the cost of the book. There’s a ton of other good ideas in the book, but this one phrase, for me, is the crown jewel.

I’m part of the generation that has been taught (and then have taught our students and kids) that rules are old-fashioned and repressive, and should be eliminated. From somewhere in the 1950’s, this theory began to saturate educational psychology in universities, and by about 1968, it had made its way into secondary schools, and shortly after, it passed through the educational percolator to the kindergarten classroom.

Let’s call them guidelines. “Rules” just seems so, well, harsh and repressive. Shouldn’t we guide our students instead of commanding them?

Umm. The short answer is, “No.” A large body of reliable research confirms that children who grow up in a vacuum of rules are insecure. Often, profoundly so. Their insecurity shows itself in a wide variety of ways. Everything from fear and anxiety about every potential and perceived threat (what has come to be called “snowflakes”), all the way to the other end of the spectrum, where they’ll talk smack to an approaching atomic warhead, because they think they’re bulletproof. On the one end of the extreme kids grow up believing they’re fragile and always at risk; on the other they believe the universe revolves around them.

Rules are essential in every society, be it a geographic country, or a nuclear family. Rules help provide consistency and safety and order. The right rules applied in the right way provide security.

That last sentence is essential. Especially in a family. The right rules applied in the right way give security and confidence to kids. Applying rules without also intentionally building relationship won’t work, though. Even if the rules are “right.” Dick and Josh are absolutely right, rules without relationship equal rebellion.

I’ve been asking you to think about the role of consequences in discipline for the last couple of installments. Utilizing the tool of consequences is the best way I know of for building a robust and healthy family. Consistently letting natural and planned consequences teach your kids is the path to them growing up knowing how to effectively relate to life in the real world and change it for the better.

One critical aspect of this process is that inconsistent consequences produce confused and angry people. If it’s right on Thursday, but wrong on Monday, or if you get one severe consequence on Sunday and a soft one on Wednesday, all sorts of bad things start to happen in a kid’s heart. Resentment begins to grow, and the end result is very ugly. If you feel like one sibling gets all the breaks, not only will you have resentment about the system, you’ll have resentment toward the sibling. Sometimes, this resentment will last for a lifetime.

Don’t misunderstand me, here. I’m not saying every child should be disciplined in the same way. That won’t work. Every child is different. How you apply the consequences and discipline needs to account for this fact. But if the rules are different for each kid, you’ll set them (and you) up for certain failure.

If the rule is that leaving their bike in the driveway means they have to leave it in the garage for the next day, except Johnny leaves his out and still gets to ride it the next day as if nothing happened, Jimmy will notice. And unless he’s an exceptionally merciful child (the odds are about 1 in 1000), he’s likely to be resentful about it. If it happens very often, Jimmy will probably start making his discontent known in some unhappy and ugly ways.

The rules need to be consistent, and they need to be applied consistently. But if you don’t have relational equity, you won’t be able to apply them effectively to each child, accounting for their individuality, even if you’ve got the right rules and you’re trying to be consistent in enforcing them.

So which is more important, consistently enforcing the rules or nurturing your relationship with your kids? Well, that’s like trying to decide which wing of an airplane is more important, the left or the right? They’re both essential.

Don’t give up consistently enforcing the rules. AND don’t give up nurturing a healthy relationship with your kid. It’s both/and. Because rules without relationship equals rebellion. But relationship without rules equals chaos. You don’t want either rebellion or chaos.

Next time, we’ll think about how you formulate your rules. How you do it is almost as important as that you do it.

Rules are made to be…

Pablo Picasso is credited with saying, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” His art demonstrates that he practiced what he preached.

Anybody here have a 3 year-old (or 13 year-old) who seems to follow Pablo’s philosophy effortlessly? The truth is, some of us never really grow out of this. We dress it up in more socially acceptable ways, but we still have this thing for breaking rules artfully. Or is that only me? I blame it on growing up in the 60’s. And, by the way, Facebook’s right, as hard as it was growing up in the 60’s, it’s way harder being in my 60’s.

Breaking rules would be more fun if there weren’t so darned many consequences involved. Who’d a thought? Well, the Apostle Paul, like 2000 years ago. Here’s what he wrote: “You reap what you sow.” A timeless concept. It doesn’t matter when you grew up. There is no generation in which this doesn’t apply.

Stephen Covey wrote in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that when you pick up one end of the stick you pick up the other. Meaning when you choose a behavior, you get a consequence, whether you like it or not, or whether you feel you deserve it or not. Most of our world hasn’t figured this out yet. Part of your job as a parent is to help your kids learn how to factor consequences into their choices. It’s harder than it sounds.

Last time, I wrote about consequences and just started tugging at the edge of using consequences to discipline. I believe nothing is more useful and effective for discipline than using consequences appropriately.

The world of consequences is the world of if/then. If you do X, then you’ll get Y. This is a hard concept for us to get. Sometimes it takes several (or several hundred…) encounters with consequences before we associate them with our choices. This is one reason your kids need coaching (discipline) from you. You want them to grasp this sowing/reaping, if/then, cause/effect concept while you’re close and can help them figure it out.

There are essentially two kinds of consequences: Natural and Planned.

Natural consequences are predictable outcomes from choices and behaviors. One of the natural consequences that snagged me a few times when I was a kid is a good illustration. I loved to play baseball as a kid. In the summer, my friends and I would play in the vacant lot next to Rodney Evan’s house from the time we got up from the breakfast table until my dad whistled me in for supper. If you’re thinking Sandlot, you’re pretty close, except that none of us were really very talented, and James Earl Jones didn’t live in our neighborhood. But the rest was pretty similar.

I had saved and worked and bought my own baseball glove. It was my most treasured possession. But I was a grade-school boy, and sometimes I would accidentally leave it out in the back yard when I came in at the end of the day. And, although we weren’t in a very rainy part of the country, occasionally it would rain while my glove was laying out in the yard. There was always a consequence. A predictable and natural one.

When I found my mitt the morning after I’d left it out, when rain came the night before, I’d find my mitt soggy and more or less useless. I’d have to work with it to get it dry, and rub it with oil, and tie a ball in the pocket, and then wait for it to be usable. Usually, I couldn’t use it for a couple of days. It wasn’t the end of the world, but if it happened too often, it would be the end of the ball glove. And that would have been a very bad deal for me.

Nobody had to arrange that consequence. It was natural. If you leave your ball glove out and it rains, then it will mess your mitt up. So bring it in with you when you’re done. If…then…

There’s a gazillion natural consequences in the world. Some of the “thens” are obviously more serious than others. If you run in front of a car in the street, then you may get hit by it. When a toddler starts for the street, you don’t ask them to think through the natural consequences. You scream at them and grab them, and pull them back. You get fewer and fewer chances to grab them and pull them back away from natural consequences as they get older.

Look back into your own life’s story and identify the consequences you experienced. Not all of them will be natural consequences, but I’m guessing lots of them will be. Nobody has to engineer a natural consequence. It comes naturally.

Planned consequences,on the other hand, are outcomes that are, well, planned. You don’t have to plan for a mitt left in the rain to get temporarily (or possibly permanently) ruined. It’s a natural outcome.

But there could be a planned consequence associated with the baseball glove – an outcome that has been pre-determined. My mom or dad could have said, “OK. This is the 5th time you’ve left your ball mitt out all night. From now on, if you leave your mitt out and I find it, I’m putting it in my closet and you won’t be able to have it back for 2 days.” That would be a planned consequence. And for me as a boy, it would get my attention. And that’s the point of the planned consequence. The purpose for getting my attention was to teach me how to not leave my ball glove out over night.

One very important thing about planned consequences is that they have to be enforced. A planned consequence isn’t a threat, it’s a promise. If you leave your mitt out and I find it, I promise I’ll put it in my closet, and I promise you won’t be able to use it for 2 days.

Then, as the parent, I have to be strong enough to follow through with this. Even when my kid whines and cries and pitches a fit. Even when they give me half a dozen excuses for why they couldn’t bring it in last night. Even when they’ve got an important game the next day, and I’ll look like a schmuck because I’m making them borrow somebody else’s glove to play in it.

You have to FOLLOW THROUGH with a planned consequence. If you don’t, there’s no consequence. And with no consequence, there’s no discipline/teaching.

Planned consequences can be more inconvenient than natural ones. Somebody will have to do something to enforce a planned consequence. In most cases, if you made the rule, you should enforce it.

For this use-of-consequences thing to work, you’ve got to have lots of Vitamin C – Consistency. Almost nothing hinders consequences doing their best work as inconsistency does. When rules are made and not held, or enforced sometimes but not at other times, or when a kid gets punished for breaking a rule they didn’t know about, bad things happen. At the top of the list of bad things is resentment. In fact, resentment is a natural consequence of inconsistency. If you are inconsistent, then your kid will come to resent you. And that’s just a breath away from rebellion.

You won’t be perfect. That’s not even the goal. But if you can discipline yourself to be consistent with your use of natural and planned consequences, there’s a big, good pay-off.


Truth and Consequences

When I was a boy (back in the dark ages, when nobody I knew had a color TV, and there were only 3 channels), right around supper time a show that my family loved to watch came on.  Decades before he was the host for The Price Is Right, Bob Barker hosted Truth or Consequences.  This half-hour show was wildly popular in the early- and mid-60s.  So popular, in fact, that a town in New Mexico changed its name to Truth Or Consequences.  Crazy, right?  But it happened.  Ask your grandparents…

On the TV show, people from the studio audience were selected to come on camera and answer a question.  Usually the questions were pretty hard and the answers were nostly guesses.  I remember once they asked husbands to blow up a balloon to the size they thought their wife’s waist was.  Pretty much no one got that one.

If your answer was wrong, you had to pay a consequence, which was usually a harmless but a little embarrassing gag or stunt.  It was situational comedy at its best.  We were sure it hadn’t been rehearsed or scripted, and at my house, we loved it.

Bob Barker moved on to other things and the show went through a series of other (most people though inferior) hosts until it finally went away in 1988.

Life is full of consequences.  When you make good decisions, you generally get good consequences.  When you make bad consequences, you generally get bad consequences.  You don’t need an advanced degree to get that.

Granted, sometimes the consequences take a long time to catch up to the decision.  You’ve known people who’ve made many bad (morally bad) decisions, but their life just keeps running on smoothly for a long time.  They keep getting raises and getting re-elected.  And people who’ve made good (morally right) decisions but just can’t seem to catch a break and get ahead.  It’s a bit of an enigma.  My best explanation is that eventually consequences catch up to choices, even when it may seem they don’t.

There was an old sermon preached by evangelists in the the last century titled, “Payday Someday.”  The point was that someday, every soul will be judged, and actions and choices will be laid bare.  A frightening thought.  Which was the point.  You’re toast without Jesus, because you’ll never get by with your own history of good choices and behavior when you have to face eternal judgment.  It probably wouldn’t be very well received these days, but there’s a significant nugget of truth in this often-fiery sermon.  More than a nugget, actually.

In families, there are always consequences for our choices.  Or there should be.  In healthy families, good choices should bring good consequences, and bad choices should bring negative consequences.  I believe the use of consequences is the most powerful tool a parent has for doing discipline.  With the remaining words I’ve given myself here, I want to unpack this a bit.

First of all, I want to make sure you know that discipline and punishment are not the same thing.  I often hear them referred to as the same.  To punish means that the one being punished experiences some sort of penalty or pain for having done or said something that breaks with the established rules.  Punishment could be something as simple as not getting something they want, a time-out, an unpleasant task being assigned.  In times gone by it would likely often have been something physical.  But the point of punishment isn’t to teach, it’s to create some kind of pain.

The point of discipline, on the other hand, is to teach.  The point of punishment is to get the child’s attention so that discipline can take place. That’s what the pain is supposed to do.  In this setting, discipline is teaching the child how to behave so that they don’t get the  pain of punishment.  “You don’t want to do that again, because if you do, you’ll get this same unpleasant punishment.  Do this _______________, instead.”  As a parent, your job is to fill in the blank, or to help your child fill it in with an appropriate alternative behavior.

Very often, punishment is meted out, but no discipline follows.  My experience is that in these cases, the punishment isn’t a very well thought-through vehicle, either.  It’s often a knee-jerk reaction to misbehavior.  Too often, it’s done in anger.  And when this is the case, all the child learns is that the parent is bigger and stronger, and because of this, should be feared.  But eventually that won’t be enough to make the child want to change their behavior.  Before it’s not enough to change a kid’s behavior, though, it will be enough to push them to resent the punisher.

There’s a ton more on this.  James Dobson’s book, Dare To Disciplineis the gold standard for this whole topic, in my opinion.  It was edited and re-released some years ago under the title, The New Dare To Discipline.  It’s worth buying and reading.  But be advised, there will probably be some things in it you won’t agree with.

After all that, what I really want to focus on is the use of consequences in discipline.  This will be on the test, so you’ll want to take notes…

Using consequences to teach (to discipline) is an “if, then” proposition.  If you do X, then you will get Y.  Where X is an appropriate behavior or choice, then Y should be a positive result.  Where X is an inappropriate behavior or choice (when it violates the rules), then Y should be a negative result.  It’s not rocket science (with apologies to aeronautical engineers).  The simple principle is that there are consequences in a healthy family.  Good consequences for good choices and behaviors.  Bad consequences for bad choices and behaviors.

There’s a fundamental assumption here that I haven’t stated, though.  For consequences to be useful, there have to be stated rules.  I almost wrote, “agreed upon rules.”  But the truth is, in a healthy home, there are times when children will not agree on the rules that the parents make.  This is called, to use the clinical term, normal.  The older the child is, as they mature, there can and should be dialogue about rules.  But when children are young, it’s the parents’ job to define and articulate the rules, and then enforce them.  It doesn’t need to be (in my opinion, shouldn’t be) a democratic process.  You don’t need a majority vote on it.

Parenthetically, the age at which a kid should give substantial input into the rule-making process is a fuzzy and moving target.  Every kid is a little different with this.  Some 10 year-olds are mature enough to do this, but there are some 14 year-olds who are not mature enough.  This is one of the many places I’m so thankful for James 1:5, If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  You need God to give you wisdom to discern your kid’s maturity, so ASK.

I’m at my word limit.  I’ll get to the rest of this next time.

“How does that make you feel?”

Lots of people think this is a counselor’s favorite question.  It’s not mine.  And for a couple of reasons.

First of all, I think it’s epistemologically wrong.  In truth, nothing makes me feel anything, emotionally.  Physically, I can be made to feel many things.  Pain, hot, cold, wet, dry.  But emotionally, things are different.

My feeling are certainly real.  They’re most often the result of events that happen to me or around me.  And my feelings are often powerful.  Overpowering, even, sometimes.  But after the initial moment, after the shock and impact, I feel what I feel because I choose to continue to feel it.  After the physical-physiological shock of an event – good or bad – I feel what I choose to feel.  This is often the difficult first step on the journey I take people through in counseling.  They have to admit that what they are feeling is what they have chosen to feel.   They have to have ownership of their feelings.

The second reason I don’t like this question is because there’s a better question that gets to reality: How do you feel about that?  Because I can both own my feeling and tell you what it is.

It basically comes down to who’s responsible for what/how I feel?  Usually, it’s easier and more comfortable to be able to blame someone else for what I feel.  This assumes that you can be made to feel something by someone else.  If someone can make me feel sad, angry, frustrated, resentful, bitter, then I don’t have to own this feeling.  It’s not my fault.  I didn’t cause it.  They did.

My brother, Ken, gave me a term for this.  He called it “victimstance.”  He meant that a person can take the stance of a victim.  He should know.  He’s been the victim of MS (Multiple Sclerosis) for 40 years.  He’s totally disabled, wheelchair-bound, living in a nursing home.  He’s not a cheery ray of sunshine, and basically never has been.  He’s a realist.  He knows that he isn’t getting better, and at this point there’s no medication that will make him get better.  He won’t recover from MS.  He will  die with it and because of it.  But he has chosen not to live as a victim.  He hates the disease (I do, too), but he’s not blaming anybody else for it.  For these last 40 years (which is actually a long time for a person to live with MS), he’s owned his life and his situation.  He told me he refuses to take up victimstance.

The world around us these days promotes victimstance, though.  It’s organized us into groups and causes according to our victimstances.   This promotes the idea that someone else is responsible for what I’m feeling, and by extension, what I do about what I feel.  If you Facebook, just scroll  through your feed and see if there’s not a pretty sizable number of victimstances illustrated there.

There are true victims, though.  People who have been made a victim by the choice and action of someone else.  Injured or killed by a drunk driver.  Murdered.  Raped.  Mugged.  Fired without cause.  Betrayed.  You can fill the list out with lots of other actual victimizations.  All of us have probably been a victim at some time in our lives.  I do not take these things lightly.

Being a victim and living as a victim are two very different things, though.  Some of the most powerful and inspiring stories are from the lives of victims who have chosen to not live as victims.  Nick Vujicic  comes to my mind first for this.  Born horribly deformed, the victim of genes getting somehow hacked, Nick has chosen to own his life, and, instead of living like a  victim, he has made an incredible impact.  Take a look at his website and be inspired:

Owning you feelings, learning how to own your emotions, is one of the five big things I would want your kids to take with them in their life-tool kit when they leave home.  It’s one of the most significant indicators of personal maturity.  Mature people own their emotions.  Immature people don’t.

But before an emotion can be owned, it has to be identified.  This is where things get difficult for most of us.  The more specific I need to be about my emotion, the more difficult the whole thing is.  I’m pretty good at generalized emotions.  You are, too.  I feel good.  I don’t feel that great.  I’m mad.  I’m sad.  I’m happy.  You know, the surface things.  Getting down deeper into a more specific description to identify feelings takes practice.  Difficult things usually do.

And on top of that, most of us came from families where emotions weren’t welcomed.  Especially the negative ones.  Or the extreme ones.  Lots of us grew up believing the best thing we could do with our feelings was to just not have them.  Or at least not show them.  If you could, assassinate them.  At the very least stuff them down where they’d stay out of the way.  Because emotions were always so messy and embarrassing.  They show weakness.  If you didn’t grow up this way, you need to thank God and your family, because you’re in a very small minority.

So some of us have very little practice at identifying our emotions and a lot of practice pushing them away, denying them, burying them.  The problem with pushing them away or burying them is that they don’t stay pushed away and they don’t stay buried.  They come back or resurrect at the worst possible moments.  Emotional eruptions rarely happen at convenient times.  You’ve probably got your own stories.

OK, so what are we supposed to do with emotions if stuffing and assassinating them doesn’t work.  This may sound silly, but I challenge you to make a game of identifying emotions with your family, because identifying feelings is the starting gate for dealing with them appropriately.  I call this little  game The Emotional Alphabet.  Your kids will need to be old enough to know the alphabet to play.  Here’s how you do it.

The first person starts with the letter A.  Name an emotion that starts with the letter A.  The next person names an emotion that starts with the letter B.  You go through the alphabet as best you can, naming emotions.  Obviously some letters are going to be harder than others for this.  I can’t think of one for X.  If you get stuck, everybody gets one “Pass,” meaning they can go to the next letter.  Meal time is a good time to do this.  So is drive time.

The object of this silly exercise is to expand your emotional vocabulary.  And being able to name your emotions so you can own them is the front end of building a skill and habit that will set you and your kids up to live and love well.



When It’s All Been Said and Done

I got word this morning that a friend died of a heart attack last night.  It’s not like we were best friends.  I knew him and respected him for his work in ministry.  He was a man after God’s heart.  I had lunch with him a couple of weeks ago and got a wonderful dose of encouragement and vision from him, along with some really good Oklahoma BBQ.  My heart is heavy at the word of his death.  

He left a wife and three grown children behind.  He also left a thriving ministry to churches and ministers all over the central part of the Heartland.  And he left hundreds (probably thousands) of lives who had been enriched and enlarged because of his investment in them.

Lots of them have been posting on Facebook.  It’s like a rolling eulogy.  A stellar one.  The words, “Encouragement,” “Servant,” “Influence,” come up over and over.  These words are the result of a well-stewarded life.  My friend, Jerl, invested in people.  As I watched him and connected with him over the years since we were students in Bible college, it was always the same.  His question was always, “How can I help you?”  It showed up in his tone, his body language, his facial expression, his words.  His positivity was contagious.  These Facebook posts of testimony are there because of his investment in people’s lives.  Mine included.

This isn’t the first time I’ve lost a friend to death.  I imagine that at my age it will happen more and more often.  I knew this would be happening to me.  It happens to everyone who is edging toward “three-score and ten” years.  But it took me by surprise at how quickly it’s begun to happen.  (In my mind, I’m still 30-something.  My body tells me otherwise, but…)

With each death of a friend, “When it’s all been said and done,” comes to my mind.  I read and hear of the impact of their lives, and reflect on how their lives touched mine.

I don’t run in circles where people are leaving fortunes to their families when they die.  I’d love to be able to leave a few million for Debbie and my kids to enjoy, but, sadly, that’s not happening.  My friend wasn’t a financially wealthy man, either.  You’re not likely to build massive wealth in full-time vocational ministry.  He had stewarded his resources well, though.  Both material and non-material.  Whatever his beneficiaries receive from his estate, Jerl leaves behind a legacy of honor and love that can’t be quantified or measured.

And that’s got me asking myself, “When it’s all been said and done, when I’ve finished my race, when my life is over, what will I have left behind?”  A morbid question, perhaps, but one worth asking.

Whether we realize  it or not (or like it or not), we’re all providing the content for our eulogies (and Facebook posts about us), day by day, moment by moment.  I don’t think Jerl was consciously building a eulogy,.  I don’t think he woke up every morning and asked himself, “How can I build a great eulogy today?” but I know he intentionally invested his life, his influence, his energy, his resources to build into other people’s lives.

This kind of encouraging life may be occasionally accidental, but only occasionally.  Most often, this kind of investment requires going out of your way.  Sometimes far out of your way.  And that happens by intention and choice.  A day at a time, a moment, a choice at a time.

I’m thankful for the thousands of choices Jerl made to pour into people’s lives.  Thankful and challenged.  Challenged by the question his life suggests: When it’s all been said and done, what will I leave behind?