When my husband and I were first married, we read through the popular book The 5 Love Languages. It was an interesting read and I felt that I gained a lot of insight about myself. As I shared about what I believed were my love languages, I remember telling my husband that I couldn't really believe that anyone would care about “words of affirmation.” I remember saying something along the lines of, “Words are cheap. Who cares about words?"
Fast forward about ten years. I reread the book, hoping to rekindle a desire to better love my husband. Reluctantly I read the chapter on words of affirmation and I was completely dumbfounded to be sitting there, holding a book, and reading words that described me in such detail. I couldn't believe that I had somehow missed this – that words of affirmation, far and above the other love languages, is what my heart speaks.
So what happened in those ten years? How could I go from thinking that “words are cheap” to a realization that I longed for a regular stream of encouraging, inspiring, and uplifting words?
This is not the place to get into all of the details, but suffice it to say that when I first read the book, my life was so void of affirming words that I didn't even recognize their value in my life or in my heart. Over the past year and a half, as I have embraced this part of who I am, I can see clearly the reasons behind many of my relationship and ministry successes and failures. My heart beats to the tune of affirmation.
Not everyone has "words of affirmation" as their main love language, but everyone needs affirming words. Children need affirming words. They need to be told that there is good to be seen in them. Children need to recognize their worth and value in the eyes of their parents and in the eyes of God. Without affirmation, a child becomes cold and dead inside. If no one points out the good in what they say, do, or in who they are, it is far too easy for a child to believe that there isn't any good in them. Everywhere they look in this world they will see people who are prettier, more athletic, smarter, wealthier, more charming, and more popular than they are. If we don't affirm them, if we don't shine the light on the beauty of who they were created to be, they will always be discontent, longing to be like the person next to them. It is only when an adult can help them see the image of God within them can they begin to feel happy about who God made them and then become capable of taking who they are and using it to serve others.
In addition, without affirmation, child discipline won't do its work. Sure, you may produce obedient kids (or you may not) but they will not be kids with tender and loving hearts. Think about it. If a person cannot see the good inside themselves, how can they ever see the good in others? How can they truly believe that people were created in God's image if they can't see that image in their own hearts? And if they don't see God's image in others, they will never have compassion on those who need it, they will never see another person as worth serving, and they will never be able to look past the faults of others and see the beauty that is inside. That's what happened to me. Growing up, as much as I longed for affirmation, I was awful at giving it to others. Rather than praising the good in other people, I instead became critical, judgmental, and completely incapable of seeing good in anything or anyone. I'm made some improvements, but I have a long way to go. And thankfully, affirming my children isn't something I usually struggle with. I thank God for that blessing because with the amount of discipline that has to happen with five young children in the home, there are large doses of affirmation needed as well!
You see, affirming our children goes hand-in-hand with discipline. Discipline without affirmation leads to either self-loathing or arrogant pride. Affirmation without discipline leads to inward and outward rebellion of any and all authority. Hand-in-hand they must go.
Here are my "to remember" points when it comes to affirming our children:
- Affirmation is not the same as flattery or “building self esteem.” The desired effect of affirmation is that our kids will see the goodness of God within themselves and then recognize the potential of what that goodness can do in the lives of others.
- When we affirm our children we should be pointing out the evidences of the image of God we see in them. Every person – believer or not – has been made in the image of God and therefore is an image-bearer. The purpose of affirmation is to make much of God, not to much of our kids. Thankfully, in God's beautiful design, affirming in this way gives God the glory and our kids get the joy.
- Be specific with affirmation. Tell them what you see in them and how it makes you feel.
- Look at your children when you affirm them. There is no quicker way to make your words unbelievable than to not be able to stop what you are doing long enough to look your child in the eye.
- Be truthful in your affirmations. Don't tell them something that both you and your child know aren't true.
- Sometimes we have to praise the potential good or the smallest steps of improvement.
- Don't couple affirmation with a criticism. The only thing your child will remember is the criticism.
- Affirming in the presence of others multiplies the effect. There is nothing more uplifting than to hear someone speak highly of you in the presence of others. There is nothing more devastating than to hear someone criticize or complain about you in the presence of others. (And may I gently remind you that this includes your Facebook status updates? )
- When you pray with your kids, let them hear you affirm them in your prayers. “Lord, thank you for the kind heart you have given our daughter. When I see her serving others in her family, I am just so thankful that you are working in her life.” Point the affirmation back to God. He gets the glory, we get the joy.
- Practice it. Affirmation doesn't come easily to some people and it can be really hard when there is so much disciplining to be done. Be intentional. Be on the lookout for things to affirm. Make it your ambition to regularly point out parts of God's character you see in your children. Write things down if you have to and then look for ways to point them out.
If this is an area you struggle with or are unsure about, I would highly suggest reading Practicing Affirmation by Sam Crabtree. This book is so enlightening, so refreshing, and so needed by someone like me. It opened my eyes to new (and better) ways to affirm my children and convicted me of my complete sinfulness in my lack of affirmation of others.
I'll be back in the coming weeks with more thoughts on discipline and affirmation. A number of these points deserve a closer look. If we don't take these two needs of discipline and affirmation and diligently work on using them effectively, we are missing out on a huge part of our role as parents. God disciplines. God affirms. If we are supposed to be like Christ, then we need to practice both.