If you missed Friday’s post, you may want to start here with our conversation on looking for the good.
Nicolas was a first-grader with a rap sheet. His teacher, who had insisted on giving me the inside track on her problem student, told me he was stubborn, defiant, reclusive, impulsive, dangerous, and uncontrollable. His Asperger’s often manifested in aggressive behavior that resulted in calls to the principal. I was told to leave my door open whenever Nicolas was in my room.
Nicolas did not like me. That’s what he told me every time I came to get him for our tutoring sessions. He did not like coming to my classroom. He said I was stupid. He did not like to sit in his chair so I let him stand beside it, but I wouldn’t let him stand on it, and he didn’t like that either.
“You’re really good at standing,” I observed one day.
Nicolas frowned at me.
“You’re probably the best stander in the entire first grade.”
“No I’m not,” Nicolas retorted and sat down.
The next time I saw Nicolas, he sat right down in his chair and did not tell me he hated me first. He was hiding something in his lap.
“What did you bring, Nicolas?” I asked.
“Okay,” I shrugged and pretended to be busy getting our math game ready.
Slowly, Nicolas unfolded his fingers and smoothed a crumpled paper. It was a drawing of a Lego pirate ship, full of sails and rigging and pirates peeking out behind cannons. Nicolas had tried to draw every single brick.
No one had told me Nicolas could draw.
“Yes, but the problem is, he wants to draw before he finishes copying his sentences,” his teacher said when I asked her about it. “He never follows directions.”
“Nicolas,” I said when I saw him next, “I didn’t know you could draw.”
Nicolas shrugged and kicked his feet against the table leg. Thump…thump…thump…It drove me nuts.
“I need some pictures for my wall,” I continued. “Do you think you could make some for me?”
“Do I have to write about them?” he asked.
“Nope. Not here. I just like your pictures.”
Nicolas stared at me while he thumped. Suddenly, he exclaimed, “You have green eyes!”
Talk to Nicolas was like talking in circles, I thought. But I smiled instead.
“I didn’t know you had green eyes.” He said it like it changed something between us.
The next week, Nicolas brought me a paper. “Here,” he said, dropping it on the table like it didn’t matter to him at all. It was a portrait. Nicolas had drawn my eyes first, I could tell. He had even made the orange rays coming out from the centers that you can’t even see unless the light is just right. Nicolas had noticed.
He sat down.
“It’s very good,” I said. “You are very good.”
“It’s just a stupid drawing.”
“No, it’s not a stupid drawing. Drawing is not stupid. It’s a very special thing you can do. Not everybody can do that. Most people can’t do that.”
Nicolas shrugged. But the corners of his lip betrayed something of a smile.
Nicolas came to my class twice a week. After that, he almost always brought pictures. Sometimes, he remembered he hated me. Sometimes, he remembered I have green eyes. But every time he came to my class, I tried to find something special about Nicolas. Something that was his. Something that the quirks of his brain and his personality could not take away.
He did not make it easy for me, especially on the days when Nicolas screamed at me and tore his “stupid pictures” off the walls because he thought I’d moved them, or threw the math cards at me or banged his head on the table until I was afraid he’d get a concussion.
I didn’t always feel like trying so hard. Sometimes, I didn’t think he deserved it, quite honestly, because the bad outweighed the good so heavily. I wanted to hold on to any sort of praise I found because it seemed like affirming the good also affirmed the bad, or made the bad less grievous.
I had to remind myself that every good and perfect gift is from above, even little gifts, like a day with Nicolas in which he didn’t call me names. Every good thing of God deserves to be praised, even if it comes wrapped in six years of blond-haired and blue-eyed brokenness. The good is worth noticing even when it comes with a whole lot of bad.
An unexpected thing began to happen. The more I began to speak words of affirmation to Nicolas, the more I began to enjoy him. The more I began to enjoy him, the more I began to truly love him. I began to see in Nicolas the same things that were in me: stubbornness, fear, and the need to control my environment. But I also saw creativity, intuition, and sensitivity. The deep things of Nicolas called to the deep things in me, and I realized we had a lot more in common than I first thought.
The same thing happens when I affirm my children.
We hear a lot about how children need affirmation, and it is true. But it is also true that giving them affirmation meets a need in me. I need to hear my mouth speak what God is doing in the silence. I need to bring it to light, call it to my attention, to notice. When I notice what God is doing in my children, and speak it to them, it is powerful, like praise. My heart is drawn to the beauty I have discovered in them, the way my hands are drawn to sea-washed pebbles along the shore. I delight in them. I rejoice in their growth! I enjoy discovering new good things of God in them.
Some of the sweetest times we have had as a family have come from the very simple act of speaking affirmations to each other. We explain to the children that the Holy Spirit causes good things to grow, things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Anytime we see those things in each other, it means the Holy Spirit is doing a good thing, and we need to affirm it! We speak it to each other. “Kya, you were so kind to your brothers today when they wanted you to read them a story. Faith, you showed a lot of self-control when Jonathan barged into your room without knocking.”
Do you see God working in your children?
Maybe you have to look very, very hard or start with something very, very small, like noticing how well they can stand beside a table. Speak that one thing. Speak it, and listen to the words your lips utter. Be encouraged by the good thing you found—however small—and trust God to make more good things to grow. You will find that as you affirm your children, you affirm your love for them as well. You remind yourself how much you enjoy them, even on the days when it is hard. The affirmations you speak create an expectation of goodness in your home. Who wouldn’t enjoy living in a place like that?
When I began to affirm Nicolas, his heart, which had a hard time feeling emotions, began to beat a little more warmly. He found out I was expecting a baby, and came by my room every day to check to see how the baby was growing. I put a little chart on my door just for him, with a little weighted baby so he could feel how big the baby was getting. He was convinced I was going to have a boy and made frequent spontaneous visits to my classroom to offer a name suggestion or to bring me a picture for the nursery.
Then one day, Nicolas came with deep bruises around his neck. “My dad tried to kill me,” he said flatly.
Nicolas’s dad was a retired cop. He married late in life, and when he found out he was having a son at fifty, he couldn’t have been any prouder. Except that Nicolas was not the kind of son he had expected. Waif-like Nicolas with the blond hair and too-big eyes would not play ball or wrestle or even hug.
Earlier that week, Nicolas had refused to get out of bed. Once he was out of bed, he refused to get dressed. Once his dad wrestled him into his school clothes, Nicolas threw himself on the floor and screamed because the seams in his socks rubbed his toes wrong. He screamed so loud, he woke up his baby sister, who started screaming too. He called his dad bad names in his loudest voice and kicked him in the leg until his dad tried to strangle him while his mom called 9-1-1.
When his mom came to my class to explain that Nicolas would be moving to a new school, she saw the baby chart on the door. She had heard Nicolas talking about Mrs. Glover’s baby “boy” and was surprised to find that I was barely showing. He loved that baby because it was safer than loving me.
She also saw the pictures all over my wall. Nicolas’s mom did not know he could draw. But there in my room was something beautiful about her boy that she had missed. She had missed it because life with Nicolas was hard. It took everything she had and more just to get through the day.
“Nicolas has a talent,” I said, and she began to cry. No one had ever seen anything praiseworthy in her boy before. How she had longed to see something—anything—in him to give her hope. That very large woman gave me a very big hug and left in tears.
I never saw Nicolas again. But there is a little piece of my heart that is connected to a little piece of his because the good things of God bound us together. The simple act of affirming the good in Nicolas made the good more evident to me, to the point that his irritable or aggressive behaviors didn’t matter as much. Affirming him did something I never expected: it made me enjoy him more.
Please join us tomorrow for Day 14: Tattling
For further thought:
1) Think about your child(ren). What makes it difficult to affirm him or her?
2) Write each of your children’s names on a piece of paper. List as many godly traits you can think of. Add to the list throughout the day as others come to mind. Do you feel how your heart changes toward each child as you begin to focus on the good things? Now, speak those things to your child, either with the family or one-on-one. What happened as you spoke those affirmations to your child?
3) Review the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. Be on the lookout for these things in your children! Discipline them toward producing more good fruit by affirming these traits when you see them.