Strong Families, Strong Daughters Blog

Speaking the Truth in Love

Mary T. Ortiz, Ph.D., Head of Oakcrest School

I would like to share what I have learned about the art of speaking the truth in love to the young people God has entrusted to us at our school, and its crucial place in their growth.

What am I talking about when I say “speaking the truth in love”? I use this expression to convey a complete understanding of what it means to “correct” someone, to offer advice to another person that is intended to help that person improve. This “art” is a deeply human and therefore Christian practice. It is a serious responsibility, and a work of great virtue proper to parents and teachers.
This is important in all of our lives, but it has a heightened importance for young people, especially for adolescents, because, as I like to say, they are like ships setting out from port: just beginning to use their newfound freedom to shape the direction of their lives. We want them to acquire self-knowledge and good habits right from the start and this kind of personal coaching is essential.
When I talk about correction, I mean helping someone see a character flaw, a bad habit, or an erroneous understanding or practice that detracts from her relationships and possibly her way of working. We all have people in our lives who have had the love and nobility to help us overcome these negative ways of being, or practices that we have adopted consciously or not. Sometimes, we will need to point out something deeper, or more serious, and to point it out in an energetic, forceful way, something which could have a greater consequence in the person’s life. Like so many things, if we have practice in dealing with small matters—essentially practice in putting the good of the other over our own comfort—we will likely be in better shape when facing the large issues.
How can we help young people accept what might be painful or disappointing to hear? There is a lot of effort being put forth now to help young people deal with failure, but perhaps we could get at the problem in a different way and see it more in terms of helping them face the truth about themselves and about life. We should work with young people to teach them how to maximize their good qualities, which includes tackling areas which detract.
It is important to recall that much is at stake here. It is difficult to grow personally if you are unaware of your strengths and weaknesses. But it is not mere knowledge that will guarantee that I will improve; it is my own disposition toward that knowledge. An openness and willingness to accept that I am not perfect, or self-sufficient are key, and this is difficult at any stage in life.
In adolescence what makes this hard is the fear of failure, or lack of confidence because the young person doesn’t have any experience, and wants to be her own person, sometimes at any cost. These dispositions make it challenging to say “hard” truths to a young person.
But on the other hand, young people also have a natural love for nobility and high ideals that is to their advantage. They have the capacity to understand the highest love. They don’t like mediocrity. Underlying their sometimes hyper-critical position is often a great idealism that needs an appropriate channel.  If we can show them that it is those who truly love us who challenge us, who demand of us, then we have come very far along the road in helping a young person take on the adventure of growing into the person God has made her to be.
There are excellent ways for parents and teachers to create an environment which helps young people to love the truth about themselves and the world, and to lose much of that fear of suffering and failure that accompanies any true learning. Here are some ways of creating this environment at home and at school:
  • Work with the full acceptance of the uniqueness of each person. This is not about perfection. We are not trying to change the person; we are trying to help the person become her best self. We are helping usually on secondary aspects of the person—ones that can help her work better, have better relationships, lead in a more effective way, be a better daughter, sister, friend. Everyone should not only retain her originality, but she should grow in all that is good about that.
  • We are not the models. Walker Percy put it this way in writing about his Uncle Will, who raised him after his father’s death: “Surely it is the highest tribute to the best people we know to learn from them as best we can to become, not their disciples, but ourselves.”1 Sometimes the best doctors are the ones who have suffered. Many times what we notice in others is our own weaknesses. A sense of humor about our own faults and foibles puts everyone at ease. We want to give people a lot of room and any number of options. This is especially helpful for young people who chafe with constraints.
  • We help young people very much when we show that we are correctable.  We thank people when they tell us something intended to help us. We talk about how we have been helped by our parents, teachers, mentors, friends, and how we try to pray about things like this, to not give in to emotional reactions, but to listen to the voice of God who works through others, sometimes very unlikely messengers.
  • When a teacher, mentor, or coach points out an area for improvement for your child, how do you react? She will learn from you. Are you disappointed? Do you fire off an angry email? Or will you help her see that she is fortunate to have adults who know her, care about her, want her best?. You can say something like, “This point that demands more from you is really a vote of confidence in your potential for great work.” Don’t waste the opportunity that a correction from a teacher or mentor offers for growth. It is not that the correction is always correct—but learning to listen to something we don’t like or agree with is part of life and we can choose the way we respond. We do a real disservice to young people by making them think that they will not encounter challenges in life.
Now that we have dealt with the truth side of the matter, we need to look at love, and truth and love are intimately bound together. It is difficult and possibly detrimental to correct behavior in someone who does not know and experience that you are deeply invested in her. Does this person know that I love her? Do I show it in deeds? 
What are some aspects of the art of speaking the truth in love?
It has been said, “How truth is spoken is as important as what the truth is, and this will be different for each person and situation."2 This is where prayer and prudence come into play, helping us be neither too hard nor too lenient. We need to pray often not only for the young people in our lives, but about them. Prudence encourages reflection and seeking counsel, as needed, before acting. With prayer and advice, we reduce the merely personal aspect, and avoid making our own hurt feelings or subjective state the measure of truth. We should always speak privately to a person, never in front of anyone else, and avoid any kind of sarcasm.
Once you have made your point, let it alone at least for some time. Trust the truth to stay and work in the soul. If we have tried, out of good will, to help someone and it has not gone well, we need to be patient. God will use that gift of truth and love and it will work in the soul. It may take many years to make sense to the person, or it may be echoed and confirmed very soon after and the person will realize what you tried to say.
This kind of work with young people yields so many good things. It is truly a labor of love. It is not difficult to understand, though, that anything good is going to demand a lot, and what greater good is there than the true, deep education of the young people entrusted to us?
Mary T. Ortiz holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from New York University, and B.A. in English and German from Bowdoin College. She has been dedicated to the education of young women for over 25 years and has been the Head of Oakcrest School since 2012.

1. Walker Percy, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1941), 56. 
2. Jutta Burggraf, Made for Freedom: Loving, Defending and Living God's Gift (Strongsville, OH: Scepter Publishing, 2012), 155. 
Photo Credit: Emma Bauso