A review of the book 'Signals'
How brain science and the Bible help parents raise resilient children
By Wendy Kittlitz
Signals is a new book from Canadian author Cherilyn Orr, who is the creator of the Stoplight Approach – a parenting program that teaches families to use the red, yellow and green signals from a traffic light to understand emotional regulation in their homes. Cherilyn originally developed the Stoplight Approach during her time as a missionary in Uganda to help families in their community as well as within her own family of biological, adopted and foster children, and this method has proven incredibly helpful to many families.
Focus on the Family is delighted to be able to publish Cherilyn’s book Signals: How Brain Science and the Bible Help Parents Raise Resilient Children with the hopes of getting this material into the hands of many more families.
There are many things that I love about Cherilyn’s book, but I would like to share just a few.
Strengthening emotional intelligence
The first is the emphasis on developing and teaching emotional intelligence (EQ). Having a high EQ sets people up for success in life: in relationships, in the workplace, in the home and at church. The Stoplight approach centres on observing, understanding and working with what is happening emotionally with both your children and yourself as the parent. Too often reactivity reigns supreme in the home and this can do enormous damage relationally. Well-meaning parents often unintentionally communicate shame messages to their children that follow them into adulthood and result in triggers that get activated at all the wrong times. How much better our children would be if they were raised with consistent messages of their worth, their value and their preciousness alongside appropriate coaching and discipline!
At the same time, Cherilyn does an excellent job of reminding us of how our Heavenly Father sees and treats us. Many of us grew up feeling shame and a lack of worthiness. As we approach God, these feelings follow us: Is he going to be angry with me? Disappointed in me when I mess up? Can I ever earn his favour? Repeatedly Cherilyn shares the messages she struggled with in her relationship with God and contrasts these with the freedom she has found in knowing that God fully accepts and loves us as we are while still inviting and guiding us on a path to better behaviour and submission to his ways.
Here’s a quote from Signals:
How does God react when we mess up and go into Red? Does He see us as not quite good enough? Does He shame us by saying, “What were you thinking?” No – He comes alongside us and invites us to come to Him. If I have an image of God that He will never see me as good enough, I will also feel shame – and I will want to turn my face away and hide. Shame means I am focusing on myself. I am not holding up my actions against who I want to be and developing moral identity. But God is a compassionate and loving God. He is beautiful, good, and true. I need to have this view in order to show the same love and compassion to my children. (Page 167)
Revealing the roots of misbehaviour
The Stoplight approach utilizes some important insights from brain science, which has become a very popular topic of study recently and gives us some very significant insights into human behaviour.
When people are in Red, they are functioning in “flight or flight” mode and reasoning becomes dramatically reduced. The frontal cortex is literally offline and people simply react; they do not think through responses. If either you or your child is in the Red zone, you need to find a way to calm the situation if you want to accomplish much.
Cherilyn reminds us:
Red-rooted behavior is unsafe. The child is unsafe to themselves and perhaps to others around them. Red-rooted behavior needs calming. When behavior is rooted in Red, the parent’s focus should be on the child, not the behavior.
When misbehavior has Green roots, we teach, train, and coach a child how to change that behavior.
When misbehavior has Yellow roots, our focus is on connection with the child, but we also come alongside our child to redirect and correct misbehavior together. And, of course, Red means stop. When the roots of misbehavior are Red, we stop thinking about the behavior and all our focus is on helping the child be safe and get back to Green.
Again, in order for us as parents to have a Green response to misbehavior, we need to get ourselves to Green first. Take a few moments to breathe deeply or grab a glass of water so you are ready to look beyond the behavior and see the child. (Page 132)
A focus on training rather than punishment
There is a distinction that is sometimes forgotten between punishment and discipline. It is an essential job of parenting to correct our children’s behaviours and train them in the right ways to act. But often our “discipline” is reactionary, focuses more on our embarrassment or frustration than on training our child, and is damaging rather than helpful to the child. True learning will only effectively take place in Green, so getting ourselves and our children to Green is essential. Notice how crucial safety is to the process:
Punishment concerns itself with the past. Punishing means putting and often keeping our children in Yellow or Red Brain for the duration of whatever punishment we feel is appropriate for the past misbehavior. Punishment causes children to feel unsafe and pushed away from the love they are designed to feel from their parents. Moreover, because children are in Yellow and Red Brain during this time, they are unable to learn well from their mistakes. They obey out of fear and not a change of heart.
Discipline is focused on the future. Above all, it means helping our kids understand in their heart how making better choices create better outcomes. Discipline is about learning. (Page 109)
Much of the traditional parenting that most of us were brought up with “works” with children who are well attached already – who have not experienced significant loss or trauma and are growing up in traditional homes. The Stoplight parenting tools are especially helpful for families where children have experienced trauma or disruption or loss, but I would argue that these tools are relevant for every family. We all want and need to raise our children with emotional intelligence, which sets them up for life. We all want our children to experience God as fully loving them, giving them personal worth and security in him. As Cherilyn explains, the home is the first and best place to experience this:
The family is a central place for spiritual formation, the beginning of the faith journey. God created families for this purpose – to serve as safe places to learn, make mistakes, and grow spiritual roots. Although communities, churches, schools, small groups, and family friends have input into the spiritual lives of children, it is the family that is charged with this privilege and this responsibility. God tells parents to teach His ways to their children: “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:7, NIV). Family is what God put in place to pass the knowledge and love of Him on to the next generation.
This spiritual formation starts at birth. Parental love is a child’s first experience of God’s unconditional love. (Pages 200-201)
In summary, I strongly recommend that you get Cherilyn’s book Signals. I believe that this is an excellent, biblically-based parenting philosophy for any family.
Wendy Kittlitz is vice-president of counselling and care ministries for Focus on the Family Canada. She has worked as an adoption professional for 15 years and is also an adoptive mom.
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