I believe children benefit from being taught that they are inherently good, created by God as being wonderful. We need to teach children the distinction between this truth and the fact that their behavior can be either right or wrong. I became convinced of this truth after meeting a young boy at a summer camp outside the city of Detroit. As a teen camp counselor, I was completely stymied by the nettlesome behavior of this boy towards others. Our relationship quickly resolved itself one afternoon as this boy stood against a scrub pine waiting for me to discipline him. As I took a step toward him, calling his name, the following popped into my head and I heard myself saying, “You are a good boy. God made you that way.” I repeated myself, “You are a good boy.”
The anger and frustration that I had been feeling towards this young camper faded and I was experiencing a change of heart as I went on; a change in how I understood him. “But sometimes what you do drives me completely crazy! And some of what you do really bothers the other boys. Do you understand what I’m saying?” His eyes puddled and he nodded his head. We talked things over and hugged. He ran off. Later that day, his interactions with others started to change; playing with his peers became possible for him. I delighted in his smiles and in his successes with the other boys. Clearly, something had shifted in both of us.
Since that experience over 30 years ago, I have become convinced that children do not benefit from hearing that they are either good or bad. “Have you been good today?” is not a question that lends itself to the fundamental truth of their worth and of the corollary distinction between being created good and behaving well or poorly. Though this distinction may seem inconsequential as we sing about Santa knowing whether one’s been bad or good, and being good for goodness’s sake, the message, I believe, is a detrimental one. I believe using the terms cooperative and uncooperative are better ones with which to form the adult/child relationship.
Children need to know that someone delights in them. For me, this knowledge is the fundamental building block of an accurate self-image. Children also need to be taught right and wrong behavior and that they are capable of choosing both. I believe that these two ingredients allow us to understand and experience fun and forgiveness.
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