What Children Need Today Is


What do children need most from their parents?

Kevin Leman: What children need today is positive expectations of them. Instead, we expect children to misbehave.

Go out to any mall and watch a young mom enter the grocery store. She has a little talk with the 6-year old and the 4-year-old, and the talk goes like this: “All right, listen up. No running around. No fooling around. And don’t ask for any candy because the answer is no.”

Now what has she just told the 6 year-old and 4-year-old? She’s told them that she really expects them to misbehave.

Then, as she walks into the store, Mom makes one fatal mistake. She lets go of the children to grab a cart, and the children immediately take off for aisles 8A and B, where the candy treats are.

Then the circus begins.

I think you have to expect the best of your kids. You have to show them you believe they’re going to make right decisions in life.

Q. How can you reassure your child of your unconditional love, even though you don’t approve of all his or her behaviors?

A. I love to think about the psalmist’s portrait of the good shepherd.

The good shepherd is out in the pasture with his flock. He turns on his portable television and finds that the climate is changing in the area. He realizes he has to move the sheep from valley A to valley B.

So what does the good shepherd do? He essentially says, “OK, sheep, listen up, we’ve got to move.”

Most of the sheep will move along, but a few will dig their little hooves in the turf and say: “No way, man. I’m not moving.”

What does the good shepherd do? He has his rod and staff with him, so he gives the sheep a little shot in the tail and moves them along anyway.

Why? Because he makes a living tending sheep, and he doesn’t want one lost in a storm or to a predator.

Parents who grew up under the old adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” beat the living tar out of kids and call that discipline. But you have to remember that the rod was principally used to guide the sheep. There would be no comforter if all the good shepherd did was beat the sheep over the head.

Spanking, with an open hand on a little ankle-biter’s bottom, with the parent clearly in control of his or her emotions, can be a very timely disciplinary measure for an unruly, disrespectful or defiant youngster. And guess what? Contrary to popular belief, the child’s psyche will not be damaged for life!

Remember, though, spanking should not be used as the primary means of discipline. My wife, Sande, estimated that, all together, our five children have probably received about 10 spankings.

When you give kids parameters within a family, you give them all kinds of encouragement, all kinds of self-esteem. You also show them by actions that no one member of the family is more important than the family as a whole.

We as parents are in authority over our children-healthy authority. And if you have a home where parents can be models-imperfect though they are-and where little Buford and MacKenzie and Harlan and Brittany grow up watching a mommy and daddy who love each other, then you’ve given children the building blocks they really need to succeed.

Q. You’ve stated that kids get positive self-esteem from a happy marriage where the parents love each other. What do we do for the ones who aren’t born into happy homes?

A. Those kids grow up with a hostile environment. They look at the world and say: “OK, if you have a right to strike out at me and hurt me, then guess what right I have? I have a right to strike out at you.”

Those of us in school or church situations who work with kids who grow up in imperfect homes need to be consistent and firm, with an added touch of love.

And that means choosing to love kids who maybe aren’t really lovable, and holding them accountable for the things they do in life.

Q. Some parents view their children, no matter how old the children get, as subordinate and less intelligent- sort of second-class citizens. How can parents learn to respect their children as individuals as they grow?

A. Parents need to learn early that we’re not really raising children–we’re raising adults. The goal is to have them, someday, leave the nest.

If you can start training a child early in life that Mommy and Daddy will not always be there, then you won’t end up being what I call a “hover parent”-a parent who thinks he or she has to make every decision for the child. A parent has to see the necessity to back off, to take things in stride, to pick battles carefully.

A loving parent is concerned about bringing up a kid who makes good choices in life and who learns to have a spiritual relationship with Almighty God. As Buford looks up and se us, we should be to hi the model of our heavenly Father.

The more responsibility you give kids as they grow up, and the more accountability that you build into their lives, the better the kids’ chance at growing up to really be responsible, productive and loving.

Q. What do you mean when you write about “image insurance”?

A. The reason I thought of that was my own insurance bills. I have insurance for everything. How can we as parents take out an image-insurance policy on our children? And I broke that image-insurance policy down into parts A, B and C.

Part A is Acceptance. Do you really accept kids for who they are and what they are? Do you give them what they need individually? It’s easy to say, “Sure, we treat our kids differently.” Do you really? Do your kids go to bed at different times? Do your kids have different allowances? “Well, no, doctor,” you reply.

“We think if you do something for one, you ought to do the same for the other.”

Well, talk about a disrespectful act. The more we treat kids differently, the better the kids see that we as their parents really do accept them for who they are.

Part B is Belonging. Many kids who don’t grow up in loving homes are members of gangs today.

What does the gang provide for children? A sense of belonging. Kids want to belong.

I would challenge any young couple to try this experiment: Hug each other. Now kiss each other.

If you have ankle-biters, ages 2 to 5, in your home-I don’t know how they know it, but they know that Mommy and Daddy are kissing they will come out of left field, right up between you.

Why? Because they want to be a part of that loving union.

Part C is Competence. Kids need to see they are good at things in life. Part of what they can be good at is just being themselves.

Competence means more than just getting kids to play the piano well or do well at Little League baseball. Are the kids competent at being people? Are they respectful of other people? Do they have good manners?

Do they interact with their parents and with others in such a way that people can genuinely respond to them: “You know, I like you. You’re fun to be around. You are a worthy person. You’re lovable.”

One of our 7-year-old daughter’s teachers calls her
“Huggable Hannah.”

No kid with image insurance ever went out and joined any gang.

Q. A lot of your books mention something called ‘reality discipline.” What does that mean?

A. Reality discipline is a respectful way to hold people accountable for the things they do in life. Parents can use the reality of a situation to teach a child.

The smart-mouthed 12-year-old says to his mother one morning, “I hate your guts!” The sad truth is that kids will say things like that to their parents. Educators call it a teachable moment.

You wait until an hour and a half later when that kid has his soccer uniform on and he says to his mom, “Come on, we’ve got to go.”

You look at him with a deadpan expression and say, “Go

“Earth to Mom! I’ve got a soccer game. I’m the goalie. I have to be there. The coach is going to be mad.”

“I’m sorry, honey. The car isn’t going anywhere, and neither are YOU.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

And Mom says, “I think you know what’s wrong with me.”

Now notice. She’s not yelling. She’s in control of her emotions.

Finally, the kid rolls his eyes (at 12 they do that), and he says, “Oh, you’re mad about this morning, aren’t you?”

And you say, “Well, I’m not sure mad is the right word, but I am upset, yes.”

Now that same 12-year-old scrambles. He knows he’s in trouble, and he says, “Mom, I’m sorry!”

Mom says: “I’m so glad to know you can say you’re sorry. And the good news is, I forgive you.”

Now he gets a smile back on his face. He can see the soccer net before him. He knows that in a few moments he’ going to be on that soccer field.

He says, ,Come on, Mom, we’ve got to go.” She says, “Honey, told you the car isn’t going any where, and neither are you.” That’ reality discipline.

That’s holding them accountable. That’s not giving in. Know some critics would say, “And, what about those other kids who won’t have a goalie?”

Well, I think that’s a little bit like life is. When someone is irresponsible, other people suffer for it.

Q. Can reality discipline be accurately described as a balance between authoritarianism and permissiveness?

A. That’s exactly what reality discipline is. We should be authoritative, not authoritarian.

Is God an authoritarian? Does he come down and grab us by the scruff of the neck and say: “You will acknowledge me. You will do this or do that”?

Or is he more like the oil-filter man who says: “You know, it’s your choice. You can pay me now, or you can pay me later. But you’re going to pay.”

We need as parents to be willing to say to our children: “I love you so much that I’m willing to discipline you. I love you so much that I’m willing to say no to you. I love you so much that I’m not going to let you do everything your little hedonistic heart wants to in life.”

Q. What about parents who know that they themselves weren’t raised perfectly, who realize they may have made minor or even major mistakes in the early years of their own kids’ lives? What advice can you give?

A. Number one, you start with an apology to your kids. You say: “I’ve been looking back at how I’ve raised you kids to this point, and I see some things that, quite frankly, I did wrong. I just didn’t have the wisdom or knowledge to do things right. But you are going to see a change in me from this day forward.”

If you and I did not have the right kind of upbringing, then our first instinct many times is going to be wrong. For example, how many parents have said, “I’m never going to say that to my kids,” based on what happened in their early life, only to hear those frightening words come out of their mouth, often in the same tone and inflection their father or mother used years before?

So you and I need to look at a social situation and ask ourselves: “All right, what do I usually do? I usually lose my cool. I usually get angry. I usually scream. What is the new me going to do differently?”

In Romans 7, Paul talked about how he didn’t understand himself. He told himself he wasn’t going to do certain things, and then he did them anyway.

That’s the human condition. We’re all subject to failure in life. The key is understanding how really imperfect you are. The model parent is not a perfect parent, but an imperfect parent. Just a good parent will do.


1. Don’t spoil me. I know quite well that I ought not to have all I ask for. I’m only testing you.

2. Don’t be afraid to be firm with me. I prefer it. It lets me know where I stand.

3. Don’t use force with me. It teaches me that power is all that counts. I will respond more readily to being led.

4. Don’t be inconsistent. That confuses me and makes me try harder to get away with everything I can.

5. Don’t make promises; you may not be able to keep them. That will discourage my trust in you.

6. Don’t fall for my provocations when I say and do things just to upset you. Then I’ll try for more such “victories.”

7. Don’t make me feel smaller than I am. I will make up for it by behaving like a “big shot.”

8. Don’t do things for me that I can do for myself. It makes me feel like a baby, and I may continue to put you in my service.

9. Don’t let my “bad habits” get me a lot of your attention. It only encourages me to continue them.

10. Don’t correct me in front of people. I’ll take much more notice if you talk quietly with me in private.

11. Don’t try to discuss my behavior in the heat of a conflict. For some reason my hearing is not very good at this time and my cooperation is even worse. It is all right to take the action required, but let’s not talk about it until later.

12. Don’t preach to me. You’d be surprised how well I know what’s right and wrong.

13. Don’t make me feel that my mistakes are sins. I have to learn to make mistakes without feeling that I am no good.

14. Don’t nag. If you do, I shall have to protect myself by appearing deaf.

IS. Don’t demand explanations for my wrong behavior. I really don’t know why I did it.

I6. Don’t tax my honesty too much. I am easily frightened into telling lies.

17. Don’t forget that I love to experiment. I learn from it, so please put up with it.

18. Don’t take too much notice of my small ailments. I may learn to enjoy poor health if it gets me much attention.

19. Don’t put me off when I ask honest questions. If you do, you will find that I stop asking and seek my information elsewhere.

20. Don’t answer “silly” or meaningless questions. I just want you to keep busy with me.

21. Don’t ever think that it is beneath your dignity to apologize to me. An honest apology makes me feel surprisingly warm toward you.

22. Don’t ever suggest that you are perfect or infallible. It gives me too much to live up to.

23. Don’t let my fears arouse your anxiety. Then I will become more afraid. Show me courage.

24. Don’t forget that I can’t thrive without lots of understanding and encouragement, but I don’t need to tell you that, do I?