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Combating Attitude Problems in Your Family

Here are three convictions to build into your child’s life.
By Dennis and Barbara Rainey


Sometimes a child’s self-oriented actions are just ridiculous. I (Barbara) was in the kitchen one morning, helping one of our girls finish making her lunch. A teenage mutiny erupted because we had no potato chips. I told her I was sorry that we were out and suggested some other options, to no avail. One child whined, “There’s nothing in this house to eat. Nothing for my lunch!”

In fact, there was enough food in the house to feed a platoon of Marines. I tried to point this out. “We’ve got yogurt, fruit ... ” But we didn’t have the one thing she wanted.

She got so bent out of shape over the potato chips deficit that I had to warn her, “You need to gain control of your attitude; this is not that big of a deal. I’m going to the store this afternoon. I’ll have potato chips tomorrow, but not today.”

Our daughter’s hysteria escalated even more. “You’ll need to come to school and buy my lunch!” she said. I tried to help her gain perspective and relax, but she refused to hear. She was so out of bounds that, to sting her selfishness, I grounded her from the phone for a week. Her disrespect and demanding attitude were inappropriate.

The punishment cooled her whining but did not completely extinguish it. Finally I said, “You know, honey, I am going to go buy potato chips, but you’re not going to take any in your lunch for a week, because you were so demanding.” Our daughter frowned and finally quieted down. What a way to begin a day!

This is the kind of petty and selfish attitude you will sometimes encounter and need to correct. Rewarding such behavior is out of the question. Resist the temptation to give in to some irrational demand just to calm the waters and ease the migraine headache. Take the aspirin. Don’t capitulate.

We suggest the following convictions be built into your child’s life to combat attitude problems in your family. (They are stated in first person to illustrate how the child should be able to articulate the conviction.)

1. If I am to grow up and become a true disciple of Jesus Christ, I must submit my will to my God.

Challenging our children to submit their wills to God requires formal and informal training. The years between 10 and 12 are crucial because you can teach them many basic principles of walking with God before they start displaying too much pride and rebellion.

One of the best tools we’ve found to shape a child’s convictions is to take him through the book of Proverbs, which is a child-rearing manual loaded with real answers to life’s traps and issues. Its pages repeatedly warn against pride. It’s a book about obedience. A book about wisdom or foolishness. A book about life and death.

If we had it to do all over again, beginning when each child was age 12 or 13, we’d discuss the entire book of Proverbs, chapter by chapter, once a year for the next six years. Twenty to 30 minutes a week of formal instruction from Proverbs will provide adequate warning about what happens to a proud, selfish, and foolish person.

2. I realize that how I submit to my parents’ standards and requests reveals whether my heart is full of pride and rebellion or is of a teachable spirit.

As our children approached their teenage years, we prepared them by talking about how their perspective of us would change. We talked about how the nature of the teenage years is to think that you know more than your mom or dad.

We told them what happened when we became teenagers and how it seemed that our parents started taking these “dumb” pills. “Almost overnight our parents were not cool,” we said. “They didn’t know what they were talking about. As teens we grew smarter than our parents.”

We have used this example on numerous occasions to connect with our teenagers and to let them know that we know what’s going on in their heads. This has been very helpful in talking to them about their pride and selfish perspective. Of course, we’ve talked with our children about the dangers of actually seeing your parents as stupid. We’ve shown them from Scripture how pride will cut a young person off from those who love him the most and are looking out for his best.

Arrogance and selfishness in a teenager often provoke emotional outbursts against a parent—often a mom. It’s important during these times never to forget who the adult is and who the child is. Patiently guide your child in the direction of a teachable spirit. To calm relational waters and encourage a softer heart, prayerfully direct your teen to take some time to get alone with God in his bedroom and write out what’s bothering him.

Some of the bigger mistakes we’ve made in confronting selfish attitudes in our children have come when we’ve decided to go toe-to-toe with them in an argument. A much better response is to ask them to get alone with God, gather their thoughts, and deal with their attitude by writing a letter to you.

3. I will learn how to deny my own interests in order to help and serve others.

One of the best cures for a selfish, me-centered attitude is to give ourselves to others. Jesus modeled this Himself when He said, “And whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your servant, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:27-28).

Be on the lookout for situations where you can help the preadolescent or young teen shift from a selfish focus to a focus on the needs of others.

We know a mom who regularly took her son and daughter to a rest home just to get them to think of others. Later on, during the height of his teenage turmoil, her son came home from school one day discouraged and announced that he was going to the rest home to minister to one of its residents. A couple of hours later he returned home, fresh and encouraged, because his mom had taught him about giving to others.

The bottom line: Real life is about serving others with humility, whether in our relationship to Christ or with our brother or sister, who may need to borrow shirt, shoes, dress, or stereo. We are training the next generation how to walk humbly with God and to reach out to others with a servant spirit.

Remind yourself that Someone is even more interested in shaping your child’s character and dealing with pride, rebellion, and selfishness than you are. God has ways of getting a child’s attention that go way beyond any parent’s conniving or planning. He can humble a child very quickly. In fact, we have prayed that for our children. “Lord, you know this child has a problem with pride. Would you do what we can’t do? Would you in your gentleness and your love be compassionate and gracious enough to help correct this child in this situation?”

The good news is that most young men and women in the later teen years will begin to outgrow much of the petty selfish behavior. You may not see it until they are about to leave home or even until after they have left the nest. Persevere—there is hope.

Adapted from Parenting Today’s Adolescent: Helping Your Child Avoid the Traps of the Preteen and Teen Years. Copyright 1998 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family.

Next Steps

1. Parents today need encouragement and practical help for raising their children. Check out the parenting topics on FamilyLife’s website.

2. What parent today doesn’t feel anxious about their child-rearing responsibilities? Read Grace-Based Parenting by Dr. Tim Kimmel.

3. As a mom or dad, you know parenting is about more than a list of dos and don’ts ... it’s about purposely building your child’s character. Gather a group of friends and go through Improving Your Parenting, a six-week small-group study from FamilyLife.



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