I’m at the age when my vision changes often and bifocals have become a necessity. Therefore, I’ve had several appointments with my eye doctor over the last two months as he tries to perfect my prescription. Although I usually like my bifocal contact lenses, my near vision isn’t as crisp as I’d like it to be. It’s not my doctor’s fault. I respect how complex our vision is.

Lately, I’ve found myself questioning children’s vision. Is it 20-20 for weaknesses, but not for strengths? Or, is it even worse? Do their eyes magnify their weaknesses while being blind to their strengths?

I believe there are far too many children with a negative orientation toward themselves. They believe and verbalize statements such as, “I’m always messing up.” They believe they’re doing nothing right. I ache for them.

What can we do? Should we check their vision? Probably not. But, we should try to determine why children have these thoughts. Solutions are often found in the cause. Perhaps someone has convinced these children that any mistake is one too many. If perfection is the goal, discouragement will quickly set in and every mistake will be magnified. How do we handle our less-than-perfect days? If we’re unreasonably hard on ourselves and children see that, they may begin modeling our expectations and reactions.

If children sense we can’t forgive ourselves, they may decide their mistakes can’t be forgiven either. Not forgiving oneself can lead to guilt, shame, and a negative spiral that results in self-defeating beliefs like, “I can’t do anything right, I don’t like myself, and I’m always messing up.”

Stopping the negative over-generalizations is important because when children believe “they’re always messing up” they can begin behaving this way. It’s a true out-working of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Identifying strengths will eventually be very difficult. There are several things we can do to help.

If we believe children say negative things about themselves because they enjoy our reactions, then we need to choose not to respond. Are they getting some power or sick joy from our concern and attention? Try not reacting for a few days to negative statements and see what happens. If their frequency decreases or children come up to you and repeat, “Mom, didn’t you hear me? I said I don’t like myself,” at least part of their motivation is attention. Try to ignore the negative self-talk and build conversations around positive statements children make or their comments about something or someone other than themselves.

Making children defend their statements can be most effective. In other words, when they say, “I’m always messing up,” respond with “prove it.” They must share an example of something they did that is “messing up.” But, that still wouldn’t be “always” would it? So, they need to be taught to say something specific like, “I messed up today when I  . . .” For example, did your daughter forget to take her Bible to Sunday school? Then explain that she needs to say, “Today I forgot my Bible.” rather than, “Today I messed up.” Then, immediately or later when the timing is better, problem solve with her. What can she do to remember her Bible next week? And, make sure to ask her what went right in Sunday school. Celebrate this.

Children who exclaim, “I can’t do anything right!” can be met with comebacks like this: “Wait a minute. You invited Lisa to sit with us so she wouldn’t be alone, you fed the dog without being reminded, you earned a 92% on your biology test, you were patient in line at the store today, you kindly asked me how my supervisor liked my report. I could add more! You’ve done many things right just in the last few days. If you want to tell me specifically what went wrong today, I’ll be happy to listen.” Of course, you’ll only be able to have comebacks like this when your vision is 20-20 for children’s strengths.

Wouldn’t it be great if these children got their eyes off themselves and considered others more highly? Yes! We need to help children serve others and God. Not only can they become aware of their strengths, but serving will help them prioritize others above themselves. And, children will discover that weaknesses given to God, become strengths. How can your children serve?

When talking with children about the statements they make, you may determine that some of what discourages them can’t be changed. Perhaps their brain isn’t wired so math or creative writing are easy or perhaps they need to wear braces or glasses and they’d rather not. During these times, we must have 20-20 vision for their hearts. We must listen for and respond to their feelings and not just their words.

In love and with compassion, we can teach the meaning of Psalm 139:14 – “I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” We can teach them that “fearfully” means we’re worthy of great respect and “wonderfully” means we’re “set apart and unique.” When they’re willing to receive more from us, we can explain that we will each serve and glorify God uniquely, as He has created us to (e.g., Ephesians 4:12). We can also remind them that they’re created in God’s image so there must be much that’s right about them (e.g., Genesis 1:27).