A little encouragement goes a long way

From the Archives

Originally published April 10, 2014

Today I take a page from my mothers’ book on encouraging children. On this morning’s commute to work, I sat across from and overheard – mainly because he was being particularly loud, almost as if for an audience – a father berate his very young daughter. In particular, he rode her about the way her school uniform was “all over the house” when he came home after she had already been home from school. He mocked her thinking as he described – perhaps with some hyperbole? I don’t know; I don’t live there – her skirt in one room, her blouse in another, her socks in the kitchen, and her shoes in the cabinets.

He railed on her almost as if he was doing a stand-up routine, splattering some “Really? Seriously?” throughout his tirade. In the meantime, this little girl was mortified. Only once did she open her mouth to speak during his spiel and that was to ask an unrelated question. I wanted to touch his shoulder lightly, gently, and whisper in his ear, “Take a break and offer her some encouragement.”

This father had plenty of encouragement. There were two women in front of him, one facing him, the other sitting the same direction as him. The latter, a younger, unkempt woman, turned to the side to give him attention during his rant. The other woman, an older, more matronly passenger, at first chuckled at his earliest comments to the little girl (something about going to school without socks) and then quickly stopped laughing after he took that attention and ran with it. The younger woman kept laughing, apparently unaware of the tot’s obvious embarrassment. So he had all the encouragement he needed to keep slamming his daughter in front of the many passengers crowding the train car this morning.

The little girl received no encouragement, and I’m not ashamed to say that it broke my heart. Dad laid into her – for laughs at her expense – pretty heavily and seemed to enjoy the attention he was getting from people who thought it was great fun to tear the little girl apart. My thoughts – slanted and judgmental – were on the things he wasn’t trying to do in that monologue.

He didn’t ask her what motivated her to leave her things all over the house as opposed to putting them away when she came home. He didn’t ask her whether she saw some behavior – maybe his own – that made it OK for her behave the same way. He didn’t ask whether anyone else at home was around to help the little girl with her school clothes. He didn’t ask his audience whether there was some useful tip or insight that could help him help her with her habits. He didn’t ask her whether she would find it helpful if he showed her how not to be a slob. Why did the things he didn’t ask bother me?

My mother always encouraged me. Sure, I got a tongue lashing – in the privacy of our home – when I was out of line. Yes, I caught heat when I was behaving out of pocket. And you can be sure at least one parent took a switch to me when it was warranted. None of this during my upbringing was to put me down, but to help me remember my obligations and duties as a son and brother. And it was always backed up with constructive critique and reinforcement of values.

Granted, I don’t know what the rest of that father-daughter relationship is at this moment. Still, I’m willing to bet this morning’s display is indicative of his tone with her regularly, and until he sees himself as I saw him this morning, their future together is bleak. My prayer this morning is that he figures it out and learns to encourage his daughter while still offering needed correction as she grows up. “Train up a child in the way she should go, and when she is old, she will not depart from it.” Solomon said that. He was talking about a little encouragement going a long way.