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>Grace Based NHA Part II

April 6, 2011

>Post three in a four-part series on grace-based NHA.

My suggestion at the end of Part I of this post assumes a bunch of things that may not be realistic given the life you’ve been given: time to reflect, time to build your own Biblically sound take on NHA from the ground up. If you are already parenting challenging children you may feel like you don’t have that luxury.

What you may need first is to regain some ground in your relationship with your child. That may buy you some emotional and mental and spiritual space in your family to take a step back and start working the kinks out. That’s how it worked for us.

God might not call your family to try this approach at all. If so, fine. I am confident He can meet needs many different ways. But if you feel led to try it and feel you don’t have the luxury to start with Tim Kimmel’s Grace Based Parenting, here are some suggestions.

If you are a Christian, hopefully you have a Bible at hand and a heart full of memorized scripture stocked away in times past for a times just like this one. Pray the Holy Spirit brings it to mind, gives you unusual discernment, and protects you and your children from any permanent consequences of figuring it out as you go along.

Second, you’ll need one of the NHA books that spells out the techniques. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend any of them. But since you need one, here are my picks, depending upon your personality:

If you’d rather read the secular stuff straight up so the abundant chaff is blatantly obvious among the grains of wheat, read Transforming the Difficult Child Workbook. No, you don’t need to read one of the other books first in order to use the workbook. The Workbook is more user-friendly than the original books.

If you’d rather read a “Christian” book, Parenting Challenging Children with Love, Power and a Sound Mind is an attempt to repackage “the Nurtured Heart Approach from a  Biblical Perspective.” The author gets major things right, like acknowledging God and quoting scripture liberally (if often out of context). Her chapters on discipline and setting boundaries will resonate more than the earlier chapters of the book. But she does not overcome the fundamental flaw in NHA theory: the idea that innate goodness is locked inside every human waiting to be unleashed.

If, like me, you need to reinvent it from a God-centered perspective, the key renovation is to convert NHA’s human praise into affirmations of God’s character and work. Even though our kids’ capacities may be limited by brain damage or early trauma or other things beyond their control and ours, God is not limited. We must constantly redirect our children to Him, not to themselves, and help them recognize the evidence of God’s work in their lives.

As a paradigm, NHA is what attachment theorists would term, “High Nurture/High Structure.” I’m only discussing the “high nurture” part of the equation here because for most moms I know, “high structure” is much easier to accomplish. In fact, for many, it is already in place.  High Nurture doesn’t come as easily, especially toward children with challenging behaviors.

NHA uses four types of affirmation for nurture. Parents capitalize on the moments things are going neutral or well, no matter how brief those moments are, to deliver the message, not, as we have been traditionally taught, associating the lesson with poor behavior.

When it comes to praise/affirmation NHA “lays it on thick.” It assumes that by the time a child is old enough that parents reach outside the toolbox of typical techniques, the child has heard thousands of corrections and critiques. (Which is an almost inevitable response from parents before they understand that the child’s ability to comply is impaired.) This is one reason I think it is especially important to be consciously affirming God in the child’s life. The techniques present an incredible opportunity to naturally talk about God as he relates to every facet of life all day long. But if you do NHA straight out of the book, you’ll be praising your child all day long. The latter is scary.

Active Recognition
Active recognition is neutrally, nonjudgmentally observing what you see your child doing. We do this naturally with babies: “Oh! A Burp!” “What a big stretch!” Many of our kids are still babies emotionally. It basically says: you exist and you matter enough to me that I’m noticing. It sounds crazy-simple but we found it very helpful because we were noticing (giving our attention to/responding to) negative behaviors almost exclusively by the time Hope was three. But even hard days are laced with neutral moments once you begin paying attention. For Hope these neutral observations are almost as powerful as praise.

  • NHA would say: “I see you playing with the cars” or “You are digging in the sand.”
  • Making it God-centered: “I see you playing with the cars God gave you,” or “You are digging in the sand God made.”

Experiental Recognition
Takes the active recognition above and attaches a value or character quality to it. Again, it is used only when things are going neutral or well. I’m not going to elaborate because this is very easy to do –once you train yourself to pay attention.

  • NHA would say: “I love to see you working together to put away the toys. Good cooperation!”
  • Making it God-centered: “God loves to see you helping each other. Nice job putting away the toys.”

Proactive Recognition
Is teaching children the rules when they are not breaking them. For example, Hope does not have a good grasp of other people’s personal space. She is often inside it, inappropriately touching them. Traditional parenting advice might be to use an instance of her violating Mercy’s personal space to deliver the “message:” personal space is like a private bubble; you are now violating that space; your sister is uncomfortable; it honors people when we respect their personal space etc.

A proactive affirmation takes mental note of Hope’s moving toward her sister. But when she stops outside Mercy’s personal space (even if it appears she got distracted and only stopped to pet the dog), NHA might observe, “Way to respect Mercy’s personal space, Hope! You are near enough to talk, but not so close that your body is touching her body. Great job!”

That functioned as a reminder about personal space before Hope broke the rule and prevented the infraction that very likely would have occurred. And Hope just internalized that I believe she is capable of respecting people’s personal space. Even though her ability to comply is patchy now, because this is a long-term goal, that message is truthful. Over time, she seems to be internalizing this. We have a long ways to go, but she is not as frequently in others’ space as she used to be and I am not having to proactively remind her as often.

To make these God-centered, I give lots of credit to the Holy Spirit helping her do the right thing. Like at dinner recently, Hope was sitting on Mercy’s chair –while Mercy was sitting on it. I said, “Hope, you must go sit on your own chair.” I knew from the sort of day we were having that it she was not likely to obey, but made the request anyway so I could follow up immediately with: “Hope, God loves it when you obey! You are listening to the Holy Spirit, who is saying it is a good thing to do what mommy and daddy ask. God is happy that you are moving your body back to your own chair. [She was already almost back on her own chair by this point.] Thank you for letting God help you obey!”

It might sound sappy, but it works. You know how the Holy Spirit is often called, “the still, small voice” of conscience? It is as if in Hope’s brain, there is constant background noise that makes it hard for her to hear His voice. My voice seems to function like amplifiers.

Creative Recognition
Is a way of making simple, direct requests where obedience is not optional in a way that empowers the child to obey. I’ll let you read about this one yourself since its success is built on the strength of your relationship with your child and I was very skeptical that Hope and I would ever get to that point. But by God’s grace we did. On good days, this is often all I need to do. On hard days, I follow up with proactive recognition to make sure it gets done like in the chair example above.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Hope is still a challenging child –which makes complete sense because NHA cannot touch her primary brain dysfunction. I still have to pick my battles carefully and I cannot be a detached parent because it takes attention and work to be in the moment enough to “catch her being good” rather than wait for a negative behavior to cause her needs to rise to my attention above the background noise of daily life. It also takes mental and spiritual work  to consistently bring God into the subject. Quick: What does God have to do with brushing teeth? He does! But I bet you had think a moment :).

It isn’t as if life is not intense. But I feel better about spending the same time being positively intense than negatively intense. And while NHA requires even more intensity in the beginning, maintaining the ground gained requires less. That means some real change has happened in Hope’s heart; it isn’t just me manipulating circumstances.

I am now confident that I can win the battles I pick as a mom. I am back to being the parent, and Hope, the child, which is the way God intended it to be. And when things get a little rough, I dial up the amount of time I spend in tune with affirmations and regain some relative harmony. Really: can you make too much of God? Ever?! Dialing it up is good for all of us.

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