Eight-year-old Kate’s questions proved she knew what was coming after their fourteen-hour car ride. “Is this the lake where Daddy used to swim and fish when he was little? Is Grandma Jeanne’s party tonight or tomorrow? How many people can ride in the motorboat at a time? What do our tee-shirts look like?”
And that preparation helped shape her behavior during our big family reunion weekend in Minnesota, where forty-eight of us gathered to celebrate Kate’s great-grandmother’s 90th birthday. How wise of her mother, our wonderful daughter-in-law, Erin, to let Kate know what was coming and what their expectations would be. Kate was able to fully participate in the water sports and the meal prep and the photo shoot and the time of honoring Grandma Jeanne during that weekend. In fact, she even brought two handmade cards for my mother. It was very touching.
I have found one of the best behavior modification techniques around is letting your child know ahead of time what is expected of him, and then rewarding him like crazy for meeting those expectations.
We lived in a tiny village in northeast Scotland for four years while Ray was earning his Ph.D from the University of Aberdeen. I learned the hard way that I needed to prepare our four little ones for our Sunday morning experience—to set great expectations for them. Ray was serving as an assistant in our village church and would leave early each Sunday morning. We would follow later. The problem was that we didn’t own a car and we lived almost a mile away from church. So that meant I needed to push baby Gavin in the “pram” and help the other three kids make it to and from church on their own little legs.
How did we do it? With great expectations. I would start the night before, reminding the children that tomorrow was Sunday, our favorite day of the week! I would tell them of the special breakfast awaiting us in the morning—homemade cinnamon rolls—and talk about the afternoon ahead of us with Daddy, and our special high tea Sunday evening. Then I would tell them how proud I would be as we all walked to and from church without complaining. I tried to communicate my own anticipation, covering over any fatigue for their sake.
The next morning, we would enjoy our special breakfast and set out. “Anyone who can get to the next corner without a moan or a groan will get a Smartie,” I would bribe them, fingering the little sweeties I had in my pocket. “Do you think we’ll see that black squirrel in Mr. Ferguson’s front garden again?” “Who can run to that mail box up ahead and count how long it takes me to catch up with Gavin?”
As we neared the church, I would speak warmly of this one special hour, the only one out of all the other 168 hours in our week, where Mommy wanted to pray and sing and listen to our minister, Mr. Paton, tell everyone about Jesus. They would need to be quiet for just this one hour. They should try to stand when the grownups stood up, and sing as they learned the hymns, and listen to the prayers and the sermon. They could ask God to help them not disturb the people around us—a prayer I joined them in! Did they think they could do this for an hour? (We had no nursery the first two years we were there.) There would be rewards for those who tried!
And then, on the way home, we would get the wiggles out with more sweeties and praises and loving thanks from me for their fabulous behavior, and much bragging to their daddy during our Sunday afternoon together.
As I look back, I believe the kids played along with me because they knew what was expected and they wanted to stretch and reach for it. And the candy didn’t hurt either—their teeth or their attitudes. Not one cavity in those four children all their lives, and all four of them love Jesus with all their hearts and are raising our nine grand-darlings to love Him, too.
Great expectations! Let your kids know what’s ahead and what you expect. Then praise them as they reach for it. It won’t solve every problem along the way, but it will help smooth the path ahead for your whole family. Proverbs 13:13 reminds us that, “Whoever despises the word brings destruction on himself, but he who reveres the commandment will be rewarded.”
What expectations do you need to make plain to your children or students or neighborhood kids? What rewards can you make available as they meet those expectations?