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Trashing Initiative

I led a fatherhood workshop for a group of men this past Saturday. One of the things I talked about was how the typical Chinese family crushes childrens' initiative. Initiative is recognizing a need and responding to it without being asked. Most kids (and adults) don't take initiative because we grew up in a family environment where we were criticized or shamed when we did something beyond what we were asked to do, including even good and helpful things.

"I know you were trying to help but how could you wash my red sweater with the whites? Don't ever do laundry without my permission again!"

Initiative is foundational to leadership and manhood. A leader recognizes a problem and acts decisively, independently, and if needed, preemptively. But in Chinese culture, the combination of a controlling mother and a passive father results in children being punished for taking any kind of initiative.  Kids learn at an early age that initiative is a bad thing.

I thought about this other day when I was home with Elliot, our 3-year old son. I was taking out the trash and had removed the kitchen trash receptacle from the cabinet drawer bracket that it hangs on. Without any prompting, Elliot said "I can help", walked over, and placed the trash can back onto the bracket and closed the drawer.

My first temptation was to say "No, Elliot, don't do that - you've got to put the trash bag in first".  Realizing that kind of comment is rewarding his initiative with criticism, I caught myself. I recall saying something like "That's good Elliot, but you have to put a trash bag on first".

Later, I thought the best response would have been to compliment what he did and then ask him to help me put the trash bag in (with no mention of a proper sequence or anything critical). Even with this awareness, it  is difficult to rewire our response.

I don't know how to teach my kids initiative but I'm becoming aware of how easy it is for me to punish my kids for taking initiative, especially if it's with good and helpful intent. I also recognize that in the case of doing laundry incorrectly, it is important to point out what should be done differently. But what's key here is what we emphasize and the attitude and tone by which we correct our children. I may not have remembered the words my parents said to me in certain situation but I could always remember their tone.

It is risky to allow kids to make mistakes and praise them for their initiative while de-emphasizing (and even ignoring) what they did inappropriately or ineffectively. But I wonder if that's part of the sacrifice of being a parent. I wonder if giving up our right to have things done our way may actually build our kids' character and help them learn to value what is most important.

So I'm learning to be different. LORD, thank you for your sacrificial love and initiating with me in my darkest moments. Renew my mind and help me to love as you do.

NOTE: A helpful article on encouraging initiative here.


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