Right before I got married, a wise man, married for many years, gave me a piece of advice. He said, “Dan, always talk favorably about your wife when she is not around. She can hear what you say about her even when she is not around.” This is a maxim I have tried to follow in my marriage. We’ve all been around folks who dis their spouses with regularity. It’s cringe-inducing for those of us who have to hear it and it only makes us wonder how good that marriage can be. I also believe, strongly, that spouses can sense when we don’t have their back, when we’re kind of smiling when we are in their presence, but cutting them down when they are gone. Real love doesn’t do this.
I also think this is an important principle when it comes to our children. It’s easy to criticize our kids when they are not present, especially when parents get together and kind of share “war stories” of whose kid is more difficult. There’s nothing wrong with retelling funny or difficult moments from parenting with trusted friends. But I think we do harm to our kids when we disparage them to other parents. Even when they aren’t physically present, they can hear us. Kids instinctively sense when their parents are disappointed in them, when their parents don’t believe in them. And yet it’s so easy to fall into a trap of kind of always lamenting our kids. My kid is so stubborn. My kid is not really smart. My kid is always doing this or doing that. When we do this, it sets a tone, a tone that no matter what our kids do, they will never measure up to our standards, standards we probably couldn’t reach ourselves. Every kid needs their parent to be proud of them. I’m not talking about over-the-top flattery, but I’m talking the kind of approval every child longs for and needs from their parents. Jesus received this at his baptism, when the Father called down from Heaven, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17).” Dads, your kids especially need this from you. Don’t be stingy with encouragement and praise.
I think we often forget that our children are not just our offspring, but they are our neighbors as well. Do we love them well? And if our children are Christians, they are also brothers and sisters in the Lord. Do we treat them appropriately this way? This doesn’t diminish our roles as fathers and mothers. This doesn’t lessen the need for love and discipline. But we’d do well to remember our kids, like us, also deserve grace. They were created in the image of God and deserve our respect and they are sinners who deserve our forgiveness when they fall short.
Parenting can be exasperating, tiring, and sometimes lonely. Venting, at the end of the along day, is sometimes therapeutic. But let’s make sure we don’t damage our kids by talking about them behind their backs. Because despite what we think, our kids can hear us when we are speaking. Even if they are miles away.