Justin Ricklefs


How To Break Your Child’s Spirit

I could feel my blood boil.  We had finished making the free sample rounds at Costco and were in line to check out.


“Shut up.  Sit down.  Don’t make me take you outside.”

Loud and without hesitation, a dad was blowing up his 5 or 6 year old son.  In front of hundreds of people.

The kid naturally resisted.  He screamed.  Fussed.  Even tried to climb out of the cart.

So upset that his son wasn’t “obeying” and that he had to look up from his phone, the dad grabbed the boy by his jacket and jerked him back into the cart.

Again, naturally, the boy screamed.  Cried.

This was followed by more threats, “Do you want to see what happens if I take you outside?”  He mixed in some expletives, a “don’t you dare” and “this is unbelievable.”

This dad wasn’t instructing his child, rather he was belittling him.  Berating even.

My heart broke.  I debated what to do.  Do I say something to the dad?  Do I encourage the boy somehow?

The harsh reality hit me: if this dad is doing this in public, what is he doing in private?

I chose the path of cowardice, or maybe wisdom.  I’m not sure.  I didn’t speak up.  Partly in fear that the dad would make it even worse for the boy once they got home.

The kid’s spirit was broken.  He sat in the cart and finally “obeyed”.  I use that word lightly because it was far from obedience.  It was fear. Not a reverent fear, a terrorized one.

I have never and will never hit my kids.  I have never and will never yank them around by their arms.

But I’ve absolutely crushed their spirits.  I’ve given them that look.  I’ve been annoyed, even embarrassed by them.

I’ve said in a hushed tone in a quiet corner of a full house, “this is unacceptable”.  I’ve certainly been more worried about their behavior than their hearts.

I’ve belittled them, snapped at them, been far too angry with them.

It may look different than the dad at Costco, but I have broken their spirits many times.  Used hurtful words.  Based my reaction on my reputation instead of their need for training. Been disengaged while I looked at my phone.  Broken promises.

You get the point.

When I’m angry, I excuse it as being tired or stressed.  When I am disengaged, I excuse it as being busy.

When I am in over my head as a dad, I try and cover it by appearing to have every answer.  When I am wrong, I shift blame instead of taking responsibility.

I’m not filling this post with a bunch of how-to’s or ways to keep from screaming at your kids.

Rather, I confess that my anger, if left unchecked, could wreck my kids.  As easy as it was for me to point all of my proverbial fingers at the dad in Costco, I’m in the same ugly boat.

My anger isn’t displayed with punches or loud screams, but it does appear with a sharp look, a disappointed eye and an annoyed spirit.

I’m much more like this man than I’d like to admit.  My words do hold the power to hurt.  Every bit as much as sticks and stones.

So today, I’m trading embitterment for patience.  Exasperation for hope.  Irritation for love.

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