When it comes to teaching our children how to manage their emotions, I’ve always appreciated Rachel Jankovic’s helpful comparison: emotions are like a horse. I think it’s in her helpful book Loving the Little Years that Jankovic writes about teaching her daughters that their emotions are like a horse they’ve been given to ride along a mountain ridge. They must control and guide their emotions just as they would control and guide a horse. One moment of carelessness and they may be slipping down a steep precipice at top speed, but with proper care, they will enjoy the beautiful view and adventure of life. I’ve used this metaphor to help our children understand God’s gift of emotions as well as His gift of self-control.
Recently, I realized that I need a metaphor to teach our children that they can control and choose their thought lives, too.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” – Matthew 22:37
The word-picture came to me one night when our son was struggling with some fearful thoughts from a nightmare that just wouldn’t go away.
Though he is only 5 years old, I want to help him understand that God has given him the responsibility and privilege of controlling his thoughts.
I wanted to show him that God has given him a special power over fearful thoughts.
“…for God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.” 2 Timothy 1:7
When children struggle with nightmares and fears, we can take these opportunities to teach them a life-long spiritual skill: how to choose their own thought life.
If our children can understand and practice this habit regarding childhood nightmares, they’ll be strengthened to face temptation, discouragement, bitterness, lust, jealousy, discontentment, and anger in the future.
When our son comes to me with a quivering lip and shares his fear about a giant lion, or a crumbling building, or whatever may be keeping him awake at night, I tell him that his thoughts are like a race car track.
“It’s like there’s a race track in your brain and you can only drive one “thought car” at a time,” I explain.
As long as he is driving the “giant lion” car around the race track, he’s going to feel afraid. If he knows that the “giant lion” car is not good for him because it’s keeping him awake, he can stop driving that car and choose another one.
I tell him, “There are hundreds of amazing cars you can choose from”: you can drive the baseball car, the friends car, the LEGOS car, the poetry car, the book car, or the song car! Choose any of those fun things to think about and it’ll be like you’re driving an awesome car around the track. Of course,the best and greatest car to drive at any time – and especially when you are afraid – is the Scripture car. We just memorized Psalm 91, right? Well, I suggest you drive the second verse around your track: “I will say to the Lord, “my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust“. Drive that car around and around by saying it over and over again until you fall asleep.”
In essence, I’m aiming to teach our children Phillipians 4:8 in real time.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Sometimes when I work with our children through their fearful thoughts, I see amazing growth. I love when I ask, “How’s it going?” And they smile real big and say, “Great! It’s working!” Other times, it seems like we have the same conversation several weeks in a row before we see a breakthrough.
But I’m convinced that as children learn how to choose their thoughts, they’ll experience the joy and peace that comes with it. And, no doubt, they’ll want to maintain the habit down the road.