Monthly Family Update – October 2018

Here are the contents of this month’s newsletter:

  1. Wonderful Encouragement
  2. What do you mean by love?
  3. Last Month’s Events
  4. Upcoming Events

1) Wonderful Encouragement

Long time readers are well-aware of the three books I penned about my first practice in Bryson City, NC, from 1981-1985 (Bryson City Tales, Bryson City Seasons, and Bryson City Secrets). They have been best-sellers and are still in print and still selling well.

Anyway, I received a wonderful note of encouragement from Kimberly Baird-Stephenson. She was writing about something that happened to her mother, Wanda Stephenson, who was a nurse I was privileged to work with at Swain County Hospital:

I just wanted to pass this along to you … my mother (Wilma Stephenson) recently saw a new doctor in Bryson City, originally from Brevard. When Mom asked her why she came there to practice, she said she has read your book and that was the type of doctor she wanted to be. God Bless You!!!

And, He did!!!

2) What do you mean by love?

I received a fascinating inquiry from a Jewish child and adolescent psychiatrist who Barb and I have come to admire and love. Here’s my response to her. It’s LONG, but I hope it’s a blessing to you, also:

We’re so pleased you feel comfortable asking us difficult questions.

You write, “You speak a lot about love and (you and Christians in general) and I am curious what that means to you. When you say you love people, me, your friends, etc. What exactly does that mean? I wish I could articulate the question more clearly but I can’t. I have my own ideas but figured I would just inquire from the source rather than speculate.”

We’re grateful you feel comfortable enough to ask.

For Barb and me, the basic definition we use when we say, “We love you,” is, “We have an intense feeling of deep affection for you.” But, it’s also far deeper than that. We see love as a lot more than “just” an emotion … we also see love as unselfish, sacrificial actions and decisions.

We would disagree with Tina Turner, when she sings, “What’s love got to do with it? What’s love but a second-hand emotion”?

I certainly can’t speak for most Christians, but when I think of the definition of love that I’m most in love with, it was one written by a man named Paul, an orthodox Jew, Rabbi, and Pharisee, who became a follower of Jesus. He penned this in a book to a newly formed church in Corinth, Greece, in the first century. He wrote this (as transliterated from the Greek by a man named Eugene Pederson):

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.

Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.

When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

There are a number of Greek words used for “love” in the Bible. One is for erotic love, one is for love of people in general, one if for love of a parent for a child, another for the love of a spouse for a spouse … but the one Paul uses is “agape.” Some say it means “Godly love” or “loving like God” — loving unconditionally or “loving in spite of” — the love He’s shown for His people — the Jews — since the dawn of history — His Story.

My simple way of thinking about it is that in my observation we humans can love three different ways. I wrote about this in a book The Highly Healthy Child, later re-published as God’s Design for the Highly Healthy Child:

Love is the first and most basic of all emotional needs. When children are loved in a healthy way, they feel that they belong and that they have value and significance. A child who is loved knows that his or her feelings, thoughts, and opinions matter. Children who know they are loved by God, their parents, and significant others are much more likely to become highly healthy.

But not all love is equal. Parents typically use one of two different kinds of love: conditional love, which is highly unhealthy, and unconditional love, which is highly healthy. Most parents use both kinds of love at one time or another, but they lean toward using one type more often. Highly healthy parents strive to habitually express unconditional love.

Conditional love is an earned love. It requires certain behaviors and approved actions. If you love your children only if they perform well, or because they behave well, you are expressing conditional love—and it’s not healthy.

But, you may be thinking, what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t I expect my children to obey and to do their best? Of course! You shouldn’t accept willfully defiant and inappropriate behavior. However, even when the behavior is unacceptable, you should always love the child.

Unconditional love means that you love your children no matter what. It doesn’t matter how much or how little ability, physical beauty, personality, or brains your child possesses. It doesn’t matter how well your child behaves.

Unconditional love is always there. Unconditional love is the ideal for which parents should continually strive. Only unconditional love enables us to meet our children’s most basic emotional, relational, and spiritual needs. Only with a nurturing foundation of unconditional love can parents find the balance between being too harsh and too lenient. Unconditional love, when mixed with honest recognition and praise, is a vital ingredient in nurturing a highly healthy child. Will we hit this mark 100 percent of the time? Of course not! Although Barb and I have worked to love unconditionally, all too often we have failed.

Remember when I wrote about Kate calling herself “Good Girl”? Barb and I hadn’t communicated the right kind of love to her. We wanted Kate, even with her significant physical disabilities, to develop a balanced self-image and a healthy self-confidence. So we praised and encouraged her, but our praises led her to believe that her value was based on performance. The truth is, we loved her regardless of whether she walked or talked. It would have been better for us to say, “Good job,” “Well done,” or “I’m so pleased with how hard you’re trying.” These would have been comments on her performance, not statements of her value.

Children should always be loved for who they are, not for what they do. By now I’m sure you realize that loving our children unconditionally is a skill we learn. Unconditional love starts simply by making a cognitive and deliberate choice. Literally, unconditional love means loving with your head and trusting your heart to follow. So let’s explore the steps we can take to learn to love unconditionally.

In my next book, God’s Design for the Highly Healthy Teen, I expanded these three views of love, or should I say, this philosophy on love:

Do you love your child blamelessly, unconditionally? Or is your love conditional, as in “I love you because of … ” or “I love you if … ”? Loving your teen because he gets good grades is conditional; loving your teen if she makes the swim team is provisional.

Here’s a great test of unconditional love. Imagine what you’d say to your teen daughter if she and I had this conversation in my examination room:

Me: How can I help you today? Her: Uh, I think I need a test. Me: What kind of test?

Her: A pregnancy test.

Me: And why do you think you need this test?

Her (turning red): Because I’ve been having sex with my boyfriend, and I’ve missed a period.

I’ve delivered the life-changing news, “the test results say you’re pregnant,” many times to unwed teens in my medical career. Fifty percent of the time one or both parents are in the room when I make this pronouncement.

There have been times when I’ve felt all the oxygen sucked out of the room. The news almost always crushes the parents. In a few moments, their reactions run the gamut—from disbelief to anger to, finally, a grudging acceptance.

This is where the rubber meets the road. Will the parents love the child even at a moment like this? Is their love really unconditional? Or did their love change because their high school daughter got pregnant out of wedlock? I’m happy to report that most parents—I’d say around 80 percent—do love their daughter unconditionally during tough moments like this.

This is the time to draw close, not walk away. A time to hug, not abandon. A time to say, “I still love you,” not “You stupid jerk! How could you do something like that?”

I know this is a worst-case scenario for any parent, but you have to mentally prepare yourself to love your teens unconditionally, to practice blameless, unconditional love early and often. Your foundation of parental love and support enables them to step out and grow to become the young men and women God created them to be. But your teens need informed, consistent, loving encouragement from you, not just empty praise. To provide this lifelong gift, you must know them well—be up to speed on who their friends are, who their teachers are, what classes they’re taking, what’s going on with their extracurricular activities, and what they’re doing on weekend nights.

Love is the most basic of all emotional needs. God designed us to desire and seek out this kind of love. Thankfully, it’s the type of love he extends to us. When you love teens in a healthy way, they feel as though they belong to something greater than themselves. They feel they have value and significance. Their feelings, thoughts, and opinions matter. Teens who know that God and their parents love them are more likely to become highly healthy.

Be careful, however. All love is not equal. Parents can choose between two kinds of love—conditional love, which is highly unhealthy, and unconditional love, which is highly healthy. Most parents—myself included—have used both kinds of love at one time or another, but the average parent leans toward expressing one. Wise parents are aware that they need to demonstrate unconditional love as often as they can.

Conditional (blaming) love requires a certain behavior or performance from teens in order to trigger the expression of love. They have to do something or be something in order to earn your love.

One form of conditional love is “love if.” If you’re only expressing your love after your son catches a touchdown pass or your daughter gets a prime role in the school musical, they’ll quickly pick up what pushes your “love if ” button.

Or there’s the “love because” form of conditional love. If you only express your love if your son wears his hair a certain length or if your daughter is thin, they’ll soon pick up that they are only worthy of your love because of something they are or are not. In essence, you blame them for not earning or deserving your love.

The alternative is unconditional love, which means you love your teen “in spite of”—even when he drops the game-winning pass in the end zone; you love your daughter even when she finds herself on the stage crew and not in the cast. It’s putting an arm around a shoulder and saying, “Hey, you did your best. I’m so proud of the way you tried.” Blameless love says to your teen, “There is nothing you can do to make me love you more. You will never lose my love.”

Here are some things that say “unconditional love” to your teen:

1) Touch them. You can touch your teen’s heart through appropriate touch—a friendly pat on the shoulder, a toss of her hair, warm hugs, a nonsexual massage. Some parents think teens outgrow touch or can’t bring themselves to make physical contact, but it’s important to their emotional health. Touch says, “You are important to me and worthy of my interest and my time.”

2) Find your teen’s uniqueness. Has your teen become good at something? Tennis? Basketball? Piano? Scottish dancing? Drama? Most likely, your teen has developed some sort of skill that sets him or her apart from peers. If your teen doesn’t have some special skill, don’t sweat it. It just means your teen hasn’t yet discovered his or her special gift or talent, which is a gift from the Creator.

Remember how delighted you were when you counted ten fingers and ten toes in the delivery room? Your child was normal. That’s who he or she is. Love that special person like a special person, pointing out the pleasing character traits you see. As you do, you’ll begin to see more and more clearly his or her incredible uniqueness.

So, a LONG answer to a short, but I think, important question. When Barb and I say, “We love you,” it means we’ve made a choice to love you just the way you are. We don’t love you “if” … we don’t love you “because” … we love you “inspite of.”

Said another way, “What is one thing you could do to make Barb and I love you more?” The correct answer is, “Nothing!”

And, the corollary, “What is one thing you could do to make Barb and I love you less?” Now you’ve got it. “Nothing.”

So, after you’ve had a time to digest all this, I’d LOVE to hear your response both “personally” and “professionally.” As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I’m sure you have much to teach me in this realm. I hope my writings to parents weren’t too naïve or too far off the mark. Looking forward to hearing back … and we love you BIG!

3) Last Month’s Events

  • Sep 6-15: Barb and I spent some wonderfully restful and relaxing time at Pensacola Beach and Destin Beach in Florida. We always love our beach time together. Technically, it was a writing trip for me, and allowed me to knock out a major portion of my next health book for Harvest House Publishers, “Fit After 50—Make Simple Choices Today for a Happier, Healthier You,” (co-authored with my friend, Phil Bishop. But, of course, there was the requisite beach, shell hunting, sunbathing, walking, and seafood dining times!
  • Sep 15-18: Scott’s wife and our daughter-in-love, Jennifer, and granddaughters Anna, and Sarah stayed with us a few days. We were so sorry Scott couldn’t make it but we had a wonderful time visiting with THE three gals from Georgia! Two days and a night at the waterpark at the Great Wolf Lodge were a ton of fun.

4) Upcoming Events

  • Oct 2-6: Barb and I will be in Chicago for an AMA RUC meeting. We always enjoy our time in downtown Chicago. Barb especially enjoys her time on “The Magnificent Mile” on Michigan Avenue! We’ll use this trip to begin a three-month celebration of our 45thWedding Anniversary by sharing celebration meals at several nice Chicago restaurants.
  • Oct 13: The Marriage Ministry Barb and I direct at Academy Christian Churchis having a fun Mystery Date Nightfor married couples. It should be great fun, and we’re praying the event will draw couples closer to each other.
  • Oct 20-27: Barb and I will spend a week at Vero Beach, FL. Like our September beach trip, this one is also a writing trip and Barb and I are hoping to finish and submit the final manuscript for, “Fit After 50—Make Simple Choices Today for a Happier, Healthier You.” But, of course, there was the requisite beach, shell hunting, sunbathing, walking, and seafood dining times!

5) Past Issues of our family newsletter:

You can get more information on many of our upcoming events here.