“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” If you’ve seen the movie or read the book The Help, you know these words. You also know the moving scene when they’re spoken. If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Kathryn Stockett’s heartwarming characters, let me introduce you. The scene takes place in adorable two-year-old Mae Mobley’s bedroom with Aibileen, her beloved housekeeper. Aibileen walks into the room, smile wide and arms outstretched. She takes Mae Mobley into her arms, holds her close, and repeats these words with her: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” They’re words that are foundational. They speak the truth into Mae Mobley’s life of who she is, how God made her, and how deeply she’s loved by her Aibileen.
The picture of Mae Mobley and Aibileen is what we often think of when we think of growing a child’s identity. Nurturing . . . comfort . . . security. Giving them a sense of how deeply they’re loved, of how God sees them, of how we see them. We talked about that type of knowingness, being known and loved in the last chapter. In this phase of life, however, they want more. They want not just to know, but to experience that knowledge and love. In these years, we want to go deeper with those foundational truths and dig down into helping a child develop their unique, God-given identity.
Seven to twelve years of age are some of the most important in terms of a child’s life—particularly, their capacities for growth. (We say seven to twelve, but each child develops at a different rate in every aspect of their lives, not just physically. These are more guides than they are rules.) Kids in these years are not just growing upward. Their brains are changing as quickly as their bodies. Their muscles are, too. What’s learned in this phase of development has more potential to stay with them than in any other season of their lives. That involves muscle memory such as sports or music lessons, cognitive abilities such as multiplication, and spiritual truths, such as developing identity. But, as always, there are blocks that get in their (and our way) of helping children reach this crucial milestone in their spiritual development.
Stumbling Block #1: Over-Encouragement
Just as we could call this the Age of Identity Development, we could also call it the Age of Lessons and Practices. For you, it could be called the Age of Carpool. Your child has piano lessons on Monday night. Soccer practice is on Tuesday night. Dance is on Thursday and Boy Scouts are on Friday afternoons, plus a weekend camp out from time to time.
As a parent, you’re not only using these practices and lessons to build their skills. You’re also trying to build their confidence. And you’re exactly right. Because of the way their brains are developing, this is the time these skills have their greatest boomerang effect. What’s learned now is much more likely to come back than what’s learned at 18 or 30.
In the flurry of activities and building confidence, however, we can forget an even greater truth. We spend our time cheering them on, building them up, encouraging them. And, again, rightly so. But in the midst of all of this cheering and building and encouraging, we can place too much emphasis on growing their confidence. We worry so much that their little self-esteems are fragile that we sometimes neglect growing their understanding of grace. We don’t talk about sin because we don’t want them to doubt God’s love for them.
Several summers ago, we were at second to fourth grade camp. I was teaching on one of the “put off” and “put on” list verses, such as Colossians 3. You remember, Colossians 3 starts with putting off “sexual promiscuity, impurity, lust.” We didn’t stress those quite so much with the second to fourth graders. But the verse goes on to add, “doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, and grabbing whatever attracts your fancy. That’s a life shaped by things and feelings instead of by God.” It then goes on to include “bad temper, irritability, meanness, profanity, dirty talk, and lying.” I’ll stop there. . . . I’m feeling convicted myself.
Anyway, we were talking about this verse from the Message. I asked the kids if they had any idea what they most wanted to “put off.” Several of them said things like, “Sometimes I tease my brother,” “I wasn’t very nice to a boy in my class once.” And then, the always helpful, “I can’t think of anything.”
In the midst of all of these non-admissions, one second grade boy named Caleb stood up. Now, I have to say that Caleb has had really good teaching. I know his parents well and know that they have raised all of their children, Caleb included, to know the Gospel. He stood up and simply but powerfully said, “I lie.” The room was silent. And then it wasn’t. Hand after hand went up of kids who felt free to tell the truth. They spoke of cheating, meanness, bad tempers, grabbing whatever attracted their fancy. They were honest. And during the day that followed, they were freer than any day I had seen them at camp thus far. As Caleb knew, honesty is where grace really starts.
Kids in these years know they don’t do everything right. They know they fail. Make mistakes. They may not be as familiar with the word sin, but they know all too well when they’ve done something wrong. And they’re looking to us for a response.
Dan Allender is the one who said it first—and David, Sissy and I have all quoted it many times. Kids are asking two questions, and they’re asking them at the same time. “Am I loved?” and “Can I get my own way?”
Your child needs desperately to know both. He’s loved, but he can’t get his own way. He tries hard to get his own way in the midst of being loved. At this stage in his life, he’s aware of that trying. A little girl I know told me that she remembered the exact point when she realized if she pushed her mom hard enough, she could get whatever she wanted. You may remember something similar. Their capacity for skills is developing in these years, and so is their capacity for—or at least their awareness of—sin.
I don’t think it will come as a surprise to you, but in case no one has ever said it to you directly, your child sins. Yes, even your adorable youngest, or whichever one in the birth order line is the easiest. He lies. She manipulates. He is selfish. She’s unkind to other kids. They sin—or, as we often say at Daystar, they’re a mess. They know it, in these years. And they expect you to know it as well. It’s the “Can I get my own way?” portion of the question. They need you to see them, their attempts to try to get their own way, and to answer with a strong yet loving no.
Pick up a copy of Are My kids on Track for more help on building your child’s spiritual identity.