“Good job!” “That picture looks good!” “Looking good sweetie!” “You are a good brother!” “You are a good boy!”
Sounds ‘good,’ right? I thought so too… until the day when I told my son, “Remember – you are a good student! You are a good friend!” just before sending him off to school.
He looked at me without saying a word, but his eyes told me plenty: “Oh, sure. Don’t worry about the bullies I just told you about and the fact that only 1 or 2 of all the kids like me. Don’t worry about the teacher that blames and punishes me with all the kids because she doesn’t know who did wrong. Don’t worry about the homework you yelled at me last night because I didn’t do it fast enough. Yeah – sure. I’m good?”
When he was gone, I thought about what he had told me through that look. He was telling me he needed something different, but I didn’t know what. I had learned to use declarations, or positive affirmations to boost myself and my family up. I use them daily. What was wrong with saying what I said? Well, he just didn’t believe it, I thought. You are supposed to say it until you believe it. But that look had said so much MORE! I mulled and prayed.. and read.
I am reading a new favorite book of mine: Liberated Parents,Liberated Children by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. It talked about just this thing. “To a lay person it always comes as a surprise when he praises a child generously and the child then becomes obnoxious. To the psychologist it's no mystery. He knows that children must throw off global praise, it's too confining. ...when we use global praise with children, we are practically asking for trouble." (pg. 57)
And that’s when it hit me: the phrase ‘You are a good student/friend” is too confining for him. My son hates authority, rules, and doing anything any way but his own. To say he IS good is like saying he HAS to be GOOD ALL THE TIME! To him, this is too much. Instead of trying, he gave up, made mischief and had as much fun as he could. Why try when it is impossible?
So WHAT DO I DO???
My new favorite book had the answer as well: descriptive praise. Not a completely new concept to me; however, I was not using it correctly or effectively. This morning that changed.
I found something positive to ‘describe’ from the day before. When I woke him up I said, “Yesterday you told me how you earned a recognition in school. You said you were trying hard to pay attention even when the kids around you weren’t. That takes discipline and focus. You did it and got your reward. I wanted to tell you I appreciate your effort.” I then gave him a sticker in our reward system at home.
He smiled, and then told me he had talked with his brother the night before until after 9:00pm, (when he was supposed to be going to sleep) about the basketball tournament last weekend. I held back criticism and simply said, “I am happy you can talk to your brother about things that are important to you!”
I didn’t even tell him to hurry up so he wouldn’t miss the bus; instead I simply said, “It is now 6:25.” He got up and got ready for school. Just before leaving he ran to me and said, “Today, when I get home from school I am going to take a 10 min break and then get right to work!”
That afternoon he took a longer break. He took all afternoon to do his chores and his homework. This time there was no badgering from me. I am finally learning to let him make his own decisions. He did finish his responsibilities. He even cleaned up his mess when he broke my glass measuring cup without me having to ask him to do it. Then I was able to describe that to him to: “I noticed when you made a mess, you went right ahead and cleaned it up. You swept all of the pieces off the floor. Where did you learn to clean up like that?”
He thought for a moment, “I guess I watched you and Dad do it.”
“You know. I am so glad you can watch Mom and Dad. Cleaning up after your mess was responsible. Thank you for cleaning up your mess!” His eyes beamed with pleasure. They were telling me a much different story than they had just the morning before.
Just before bed he said, “Tomorrow I am only going to take a 5 min break, and then get right to work!” Will he? Well, we will see. The day he does I will tell him, “Hey! You did exactly what you said you would. Now I know I can trust that when you say you will do something, you will.”
Oh… I almost forgot… about those declarations, “I am a good student! I am a good friend!”
They now read, “I am an attentive student!” and “I am a considerate and thoughtful friend!”
Now he will know exactly how to act, and he will believe he can.