Quinn was 4 when he hit his 2-year-old sister in the face.
I led him to his bedroom, closed the door behind us and knelt down to his level. The fury in my eyes was reflected in his own. I wanted to ask, "What is wrong with you?" And I wanted to answer that question myself with a biting remark, such as, "You are a bad boy."
In other words, I wanted to shame him.
Shame is the message we receive from the people around us that says we are basically bad, broken and irredeemable. Shame is different from guilt. A sense of guilt that isn't manufactured by another person can be a holy emotion, built into our soul to tell us we did something wrong; shame is an unholy emotion drilled into our soul that tells us we are something wrong. A sense of guilt, when it is natural, can correct our performance; shame condemns our person.
As a parent, it is tempting to shame my kids. Why? Because it works.
Shame feels so painful that a child will do almost anything to avoid feeling it again. A child will reform almost any behavior and alter almost any performance to avoid the condemnation of their personhood. So, in the short-term, shame is a highly effective method for shaping behavior. However, over time, it also shapes a child’s soul in all the wrong ways.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to shaming our kids.
It's called delight.
Once upon a time, there was a prodigal son who performed horribly (Luke 15:11-32). He demanded his inheritance, what he would receive after his father died. Once he received it, he went away and squandered all of his fortune on debauchery. One day, he awoke in a pigsty, filthy and hungry, and came to his senses. He slunk back home to his father, hoping for a job.
Delight is the father scanning the horizon for this wayward son, daily, constantly. Then one day glimpsing him a long way off. Delight is the father hiking up his robes and sprinting out to greet his son, to embrace him, and ultimately, to celebrate him. Delight is a father knowing his son's performance was horrible but his person has value.
Kneeling in front of Quinn, I wanted to shame him, but, every once in a while, I put one in the win column as a parent. I didn't shame him. Instead, I delighted in him. I told him, "Quinn, I know you love your sister, and I know you have a tender heart. Can you find a way to apologize to your sister? You can come out of your bedroom when you are ready to do so."
A few minutes passed. Then 30. Then an hour. The bedroom door creaked open, and Quinn came out holding something. He'd spent an hour crafting an apology card to his little sister. It was beautiful. Turns out, I had seen what was delightful in Quinn and helped him to see it in himself. His good performance arose from this delightful part of his personhood.
Parenting With Delight
What does a sprinting father with hiked up robes teach us about how to parent without shame? This father, who represents God the Father, teaches us how to parent with the opposite of shame: delight. And this story teaches us three key elements of delighting in our kids:
We must look for our kids a long way off. When their behavior is less than delightful, we must provide consequences, of course, but those consequences must be rooted in an awareness of what is most delightful about their heart. This requires time and intentionality to see. It means putting down our phones and ambitions and making the effort to really see our kids. It means playing the long game.
Embraces are tender. They send a message that is the opposite of shame: No matter how unlovable you act, you will always be loved in these arms; you might make mistakes, but you are not a mistake, and you will always belong. We can embrace our kids with our arms, with our words, with our time.
Upon the prodigal's return, his father threw a party for him. He set aside time specifically for delighting in his wayward son. It's important that we not expect ourselves to delight in the heat of the moment. Instead, let's set aside regular times of gathering with our kids — moments where they can have our full attention and we can concentrate on delighting in them.
Quinn is 10 years old now. Last night, at the dinner table, his older brother accidentally tore his coveted yearbook. For a few minutes, I watched him wrestle with his sadness, and some of the old fury rose into his eyes. Then, suddenly, the delightful truth about who he is rose to the surface once again.
He asked his brother, simply, to repair the yearbook, and then he asked the rest of us if we could go back to talking about something happy. He asked me how my day went.
I just looked at him.
With delight.Kelly Flanagan is a clinical psychologist in Naperville, IL, and the author of Loveable: Embracing What Is Truest About You, So You Can Truly Em-brace Your Life.