I'll never forget the story of David, my next door neighbor a while back, who taught me a great lesson one morning as I watched him trying to teach his seven-year-old son how to push the gas-powered lawn mower around the yard. As he was showing him how to turn the mower around at the end of the lawn, his wife Jan called to him to ask a question. When David turned to answer the question, Kelly pushed the lawn mower right through the flower bed at the edge of the lawn--leaving a two-foot wide path leveled to the ground!
David was not happy about this. As soon as he saw what had happened, he began to lose control. David had put a lot of time and effort into making those flower beds the envy of the neighborhood. The moment his voice climbed higher in a semi-rage toward poor Kelly, Jan walked quickly over to him, put her hand on his shoulder and said, "David, please remember...we're raising children, not flowers!"
The moral of this story couldn't be more important today. Each one of us is enduring more stress as we face a recession and a deep financial shakeup that has no end in sight. During times like these it's essential for us parents to remember what our priorities are. Our kids and their self-esteem are more important than any physical object they might break or destroy. The window pane shattered by a mishit baseball, a lamp knocked over by a careless child, or a plate dropped in the kitchen are already broken. The flowers are already dead. All of these things are replaceable; our children are not. We must remember not to add to the destruction by breaking a child's spirit and deadening their sense of aliveness.
Words, especially when yelled in anger, can be very damaging to a child's self-confidence. The child probably already feels bad enough just from seeing the consequences of his or her behavior. Our sons and daughters don't need more guilt and self-doubt heaped upon their already wounded egos. If anything, they need to be reminded that we all make mistakes throughout our life. (Here's an exercise to try: the next time you feel like raising your voice to one of your kids, stop and think about the last time you made a mistake. It probably wasn't too long ago, and you really don't care to be yelled at for that right now.)
More recently, I was buying some new clothes in a men's store and the owner and I started talking about parenting. He told me that while he and his wife and seven-year-old daughter were out at a restaurant for dinner, his daughter knocked over her water glass. It spilled everywhere and messed up her mother's dress as the water flowed over the edge near her seat. After the water was cleaned up without any recriminating remarks from her parents, she looked up and said, "You know, I really want to thank you guys for not being like other parents. Most of my friends' parents would have yelled at them and given them a lecture about paying more attention. Thanks for not doing that!"
Once, when I was having dinner with some friends, a similar incident happened. Their five-year-old son knocked over a glass of milk at the dinner table. When they immediately started in on him, I knocked my glass over, too. When I started to explain how I still knock things over even as an adult, the boy started to beam and the parents seemingly got the message and backed off. How easy it is to forget that we are all still learning.
One of the best stories I've ever heard about "spilt milk" and the lessons of making a mess comes from a famous research scientist who made several very important medical breakthroughs. A newspaper reporter once asked him why he thought he was able to be so much more creative than the average person. What set him so far apart from others?
He responded that, in his opinion, it all came from an experience with his mother, which occurred when he was about two years old. He had been trying to remove a bottle of milk from the refrigerator, when he lost his grip on the slippery bottle and it fell, spilling its contents all over the kitchen floor--a veritable sea of milk! (Thankfully, no glass shattered, but the milk kept flowing out like a river.)
When his mother came into the kitchen, instead of yelling at him, giving him a lecture, or punishing him, she said, "Robert, what a great and wonderful mess you have made! I have rarely seen such a huge puddle of milk. Well, the damage has already been done. Would you like to get down and play in the milk for a few minutes before we clean it up?"
Indeed, he did. After a few minutes his mother said, "You know, Robert, whenever you make a mess like this, eventually you have to clean it up, and restore everything to its proper order. So, how would you like to do that? We could use a sponge, a towel or a mop. What do you prefer?" He chose the sponge and together they cleaned up the spilled milk.
His mother then said, "You know what we have here is a failed experiment in how to effectively carry a big milk bottle with two tiny hands. Let's go out in the back yard and fill the bottle with water and see if you can discover a way to carry it without dropping it." The little boy learned that if he grasped the bottle at the top near the lip with both hands, he could carry it without dropping it. What a wonderful lesson!
This renowned scientist then remarked that it was at that moment he knew he didn't need to be afraid to make mistakes. Instead he learned that mistakes were just opportunities for learning something new, which is, after all, what scientific experiments are all about. They are simply that--just experiments to see what happens. Even if the experiment "doesn't work," we usually learn something valuable from it.
Wouldn't it be great if all parents responded the same way Robert's mother responded to him? After all, why do we have that phrase, "Don't cry over a little spilt milk." It truly is no big deal. We need to remember that we're raising capable, confident kids--not shiny linoleum floors.
One last story which illustrates the application of this attitude in an adult context was told by Paul Harvey on the radio several years back. A young woman motorist was driving home from work when she snagged her fender on the bumper of another car. She was in tears as she explained that it was a new car, only a few days from the showroom. How was she ever going to explain the damaged car to her husband?
The driver of the other car was sympathetic, but explained that they must note each others license numbers and registration numbers. As the young woman reached into a large brown envelope to retrieve the documents, a piece of paper fell out. In a heavy masculine scrawl were these words: "In case of accident . . . remember, honey, it's you I love, not the car!"
Let's remember that our children's spirits are more important than any material things. When we do, self-esteem and love blossoms and grows more beautifully than any bed of flowers ever could.
I'll end this be reminding you that parenting during acutely stressful time periods adds another element to the job that can be hard to prepare for. We are bogged down by our own emotions and woes such that the slightest mishap by one of our kids will send us over the edge. That said, our children can act as great buffers to that stress. They may not have a handle on all that's going on in the world, nor understand the decisions we have to make as parents to ensure the health and security of our families, but surely you can agree that the joy the bring to our lives outshines so much of that stress. Let them act as children--let them make mistakes and learn from them. After all, it's those same mistakes we made growing up that allowed us to mature into thoughtful, productive, and compassionate adults. And remember, you are raising children, not flowers!
© 2009 Jack Canfield
Jack Canfield is America's #1 Success Coach, co-founder of the billion-dollar Chicken Soup for the Soul brand, and a leading authority on Peak Performance. If you're ready to be more accomplished and have more fun in all that you do, get your FREE success tips from Jack Canfield now at: www.FreeSuccessPrinciples.com.
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more