In our large, mixed family in which my husband and I have fostered 11 children and teens in the last four-and-a-half-years, we’ve had to find (and most times create) different methods — however wacky they might turn out to be — in order to train our precious little ones in the ways of righteousness.
Well, our ‘little ones’ are no longer little, as the majority of our kids now lie in the age range of 13-17 years old. Simple rebukes, time-outs or other common disciplinary procedures designed for small children just don’t do the trick (especially not with ours, who arrived in our home already on their way to puberty or several years into it). So, in addition to regular times of prayer, Biblical counsel and healthy family time, we’ve gotten creative in the way that we train our teens.
One constant struggle in our household (mainly among our 5 teenage girls) is that of gossiping, hurt feelings, and the like. On many occasions we’ve facilitated very on-edge conflict resolutions among our girls, always guided by prayer and asking for Christ’s peace to cover each of us in the process. By God’s grace our girls have come a long way, and they now have better (and more loving) communication skills that most of their peers but there are still certain ‘tweaks’ that we hope to make in the attitudes and behaviors in our home.
With that being said, a few nights ago a plan struck me: I would go innocently pop by our girls’ rooms to encourage them in love, and each time I would do so I would give them some kind of tiny treat. One of our girls was out for the night at a friend’s house, so our teen girls numbered four for that night. Two in one room; two in the other.
Knowing too well the attitudes we had been facing in our home in the last few weeks between these four (and their tendency to form teams against one another), I asked God for an extra dose of joy and began my absurd rounds, all in the name of brotherly (or rather sisterly) love.
I had already hugged each of our kids and bid them goodnight not 15 minutes prior, so at this point no one was expecting me to come back by again. It was still early, so I knew they would be doing homework or chit-chatting quietly in their rooms. It was a perfect opportunity for a lesson in God’s love.
I approached the first room, a black curtain hung in the doorway (our kids don’t have doors on their rooms). We had just recently painted our kids’ rooms for the first time in a few years, and this particular room now sported a beautiful turquoise blue with black music notes painted along one wall. I knocked on the frame around the curtain and asked in a joyful tune if I could come in.
They quickly answered, telling me to pass. This was Team 1, and I was determined to do all that was in my power to assure that their nightly ‘sleepover party’ didn’t turn into a gossiping match against their other sisters. I slid the curtain open, my face now beaming through it as I greeted our two precious teens with my wide, energetic eyes as they sat quietly on their floor doing the math homework I had assigned them. They looked up at me expectantly, waiting to see what I needed.
My voice rose high as I accentuated the end of the question: “Are you two loving each other?”
Their brows furrowed a little, not expecting that question, and nodded ‘yes.’ They were less than enthused with their guest.
Another question on the heels of the first: “Are you loving your other two sisters who are in the other room…?”
One of them, now a bit on the defensive, answered, “We’re not even talking about them! We’re doing our math homework.”
I kept going, undeterred, “Oh, I’m not accusing you of talking poorly of them. I’m only asking. I can see you’re both working really hard….But you’re sure you’re loving your sisters even in thought and spirit?”
A small smile cracked the lips of one of our girls, and she answered, “Yessss, Mom. In thought and spirit we love them.” The other one arched an eyebrow, which seemed to say otherwise.
That’s okay, I thought. We’ll work on that.
I kept prodding, “Okay, because as daughters of God we love others even when they aren’t present, right?”
Then they started giggling at their crazy mom who was bent on teaching them to not back-stab others, “Yesssss, Mom!”
With that I whipped out my left hand that had been hidden on the other side of their curtain, revealing two little packages of Oreo cookies. “Praise God!!! I’m so proud of you girls for loving your sisters. Here are some cookies.”
I threw the cookies toward them as they reached out responsive hands to grab them in the air, now squealing with excitement. This game was not only a little weird, but also fun!
I then entered fully into their room, passing the threshold and bending down to kiss each of them on top of their head. Then I was gone, out in our living room commencing the long journey (of about a yard and a half) to reach the doorway where our other two teen girls were. This time a bright mixture of pinks and purples greeted me from the curtain dangling in their doorway.
Knock-knock. “Girls, can I come in?” My voice was sing-song, and surely they already knew what was up because in our house you can practically hear every conversation that goes on from one room to the next.
They let me pass, and in this room, too, I kept my left hand hidden behind the curtain with the treats held firmly in it. I asked them the same questions, if they were loving their sisters.
One of our teens, not at all amused and having had a pretty rough week with one of our daughters in the other room blew me off and replied, “Uh, sure. We’re loving them.” The other girl present, one of our new daughters who has only been with us a few months, looked a bit confused by my question and sing-song voice.
I wasn’t convinced, so I continued prodding with all love, “Are you loving them not only in speech and in action but also in thought and in spirit?”
The same teen replied, “Um, honestly, no. My thoughts toward them are not very loving.”
I kept going, appreciating her honesty: “Okay, then we’re going to change those thoughts. Think a loving thought about her, because that is what God wants from us. Love.”
Her face betrayed anything but enthusiasm as she then murmured something about having a nice thought about her sister, although her attitude had not really changed. I encouraged them to love and honor their sisters for love of God, not only in their presence but also behind their backs. Hesitating on whether or not they really deserved the cookies, I headed in anyway and tossed them their incentive. They both looked surprised as they received their chocolate cookies (a rare treat in Honduras), and I went to each one and gave them a kiss on top of their head. Then I left.
Only two or three minutes passed before I entered my bedroom stash and grabbed more treats, ready to do my second round of many. I went to both rooms, knocking first and then asking each group similar questions as to whether they were truly loving their sisters and honoring them in thought, deed, speech, soul and spirit. (Each time I went I made the questions longer and a bit sillier). By now they understood what was happening and answered the questions quickly and enthusiastically, waiting for their treat. After answering the questions and receiving their prize I would give each one a kiss on the top of the head and a pat on the back or a hug.
And so every few minutes — repeating itself more than five or six times — I would make the rounds to the two rooms, trying to intercept/distract/combat against any potential gossiping or bad attitudes that could easily happen during our family’s Sabbath Hour when we don’t have as much contact with them. Each time their reactions (and facial expressions) got happier, and they came to laugh really hard about the craziness of it all.
At one point — now over 30 minutes or so into the outrageous process and with our girls enjoying a small fortune of sweets — I entered the second room and the girls were laughing so hard that they were almost crying. After I asked my questions and they affirmed their love for their sisters, I went to toss them a bag of chips and they both blurted, “We thought you were going to bring lollipops!” and began howling with laughter as if that was the funniest thing anyone had ever said. I’m not sure why they thought I was going to bring lollipops or why it was so funny to them, but they both began rolling on the floor and pointing at one another with uncontrollable laughter as they struggled to breathe. I stood in the doorway and contemplated what joy can do to a person. They looked absolutely beautiful, much more so than when I first appeared and they were put-off and closed down emotionally. Now the fun could not be contained!
On my following round (which ended up being my last), I entered their same doorway and asked them the now-infamous questions. Their faces were still speckled-red and tears were brimming in their eyes from their laughing fit as they now felt eager to answer my questions. One of them, the one who was first so unenthused, actually invented a song and began sining really loud about how much she loved her sisters (by name, even including the one she hasn’t typically gotten along with!) and finished her performance off by adding, “I love my sisters in deed, in word, in thought, in soul, in spirit, with my nose, with my knees, and with my hair.” With that the laughing fit overtook her again and she began rolling around the floor, pointing at different body parts of hers and gasping that she loved her sister with her ears, her elbows, etc.
By now I was laughing along with them, and in that moment I whipped out a lollipop for my singing daughter. Her eyes grew wider (the lollipop was what she had wanted all along), and she squealed really loud and kept going with her proclamations of love as she received her reward. The other one, seeing the other lollipop in my hand, began laughing hysterically and singing her own song about how much she loves her sisters. It was a total riot, and she won her lollipop!
So, that is our crazy story that took place four nights ago in our little cinderblock home at the base of the mountains in a third world country deeply scarred by hatred and sin. It may not be much, but I share it with you so that we may all be encouraged to love one another (face to face and behind our backs) for love of God. Our Father designed us to love Him and love one another, and I believe a bit more riotous laughter within God’s perfect will can go a long way to heal certain scars caused by sin. There is a Way more excellent than that of resentment, relational wars and lack of forgiveness, and it is that of love in Christ. Be encouraged!
God bless you!
2 thoughts on “Teen Training by Way of the Sweet Tooth”
I loooooove it! Sweets for the sweet! Rewarding the behaviors you wish to see instead of just punishing the bad you don’t want to see!!!
That’s an awesome story. Maybe I will reserve my chocolate for days when I have only had kind thoughts of others. Regarding one person I struggle to love, I felt the Lord asking me, “I love her, why can’t you?” Not in an accusatory way, but correcting me with compassion. Good lessons for all, not just your teens. Thank you as always for sharing. God bless all of you!