Element of a Confident Parent – Looking for the Good
Though the sunshine sparkles through the yellow leaves during these beautiful Fall days, there is less light in the morning and evening. And we’ve been doing this school thing for a few months now. We’ve poured it on and now we are slowing down a bit – tired. My husband and I noticed that some of the routines that used to run smoothly are in need of an update. In particular, we’ve noticed that our son leaves his dishes behind for someone else to take care of, whether it’s breakfast or dinner. He’s picked them up, cleaned them off and placed them in the dishwasher in the past. We know he can do it. But he’s forgetting regularly. And we began to remind him but realized we had down-shifted into nagging. When reminders happen day-after-day, then a parent knows that she’s entered the hamster wheel, a vicious cycle going nowhere. So the question becomes, “How does learning take place? How is change facilitated?”
We informally – Mom, Dad and E, our nine-year-old, sat around one night after dinner and brainstormed solutions. “The taking-in-of-the-dishes seems to be challenging. It’s hard to remember when you’ve got play you are eager to get to. What could help you remember?” I said and we started thinking off all kinds of ways to help him remember with E chiming in his ideas. “I could wear one of those rubber bracelets.” Or “I could not get dessert until my dishes are returned.” We talked about the possibilities of each and how they might work. And finally, he resolved that if we say simply “Dishes.” quietly when he’s asking to leave the table, that’s all the help he needs to remember. And it’s worked exceedingly well.
In addition, my husband and I resolved to be certain and notice when he did his routines without our reminders. So often, we play the “Gotcha!” game as parents. “You forgot this.” “You left that behind.” “You made a mess here.” And because we are so busy focused on the mistakes of life, we forget ourselves to point to the good even though we all tend to forget daily tasks. “Ooops, you are going to have to wear a day-old shirt because I forgot to get the laundry done last night.” is a common refrain of my own.
It doesn’t take long to recognize the good but it does take some presence of mind. We do have to pay attention to our kids not to catch them doing wrong but to catch them doing right. If kids are reinforced by recognizing their faults, they too will focus on their faults. And along with the fear of making mistakes (which often leads to more of the same), they will accumulate shame for their long list of missteps.
We can all use some reinforcing of the good. But as parents, we need help to remember. Habit changes can be tough for anyone. And looking for the good does not seem to come naturally to most of us problem-solvers who are ready to “fix” things. So how do we cultivate our own habit of looking for the good that our children do?
We need not shower them with praise. In fact, research shows that too much praise – or praise that is not specific – “Good job!” – or praise that is over-the-top, does not help reinforce positive behaviors. It doesn’t seem genuine and can actually de-motivate children.1 So in striving for authentic feedback that will provide a balanced view of children’s actions, here are some thoughts.
Step back and reflect.
Find a quiet moment to think about your feedback to family members. You might ask yourself the following questions. Consider these as they relate to each family member. Write your responses since the physical act of writing (by hand) will help solidify the thoughts in your brain. Conduct your own self-assessment so that you know how you can and want to improve.
- What are typical daily comments I make in relation to _______________ (insert family members) behavior?
- How many of those comments are about problems I see with others’ behaviors?
- How many of those comments recognize positive contributions?
- How frequently do I comment on that particular problem behavior? (twice a day, weekly?)
- Does the behavior truly create a problem for the family? And if so, how can I facilitate a behavior change?
a.) Have I adequately modeled the behavior for my child so that I am certain he knows how to perform the task? Could he use a refresher in doing the task together with encouragement? Check out this article on interactive modeling for more.
b.) Or if he knows exactly how to do the task, can we hold a family meeting or talk just the two of us and brainstorm solutions on ways to solve the problem?
c. Can we create a plan for our newly revised routine? Formalize it by writing it down and posting it where your kids can see and be reminded by their plan they devised with you.
Set a goal.
Once you’ve identified not only what you don’t want to do but what habits you want to adopt, set a positive goal for yourself. What will you do to help yourself recognize the good?
Consider developmental milestones.
So often the behaviors that annoy us about children relate directly to the developmental milestones on which they are working. By the very nature of learning and achieving new levels of awareness and ability, they will be making mistakes. It’s a necessary part of how we all learn. So at this time when you are looking to make your own habit changes, read about your child’s age and stage and find out what they are working on. Then when they make mistakes, you’ll be able to recognize and connect it to their development. It will allow you greater empathy resulting in added patience and understanding. You’ll be ready to support their learning versus falling into the tendency to scold them for their mistakes. Check out the Parent Toolkit for development ages/stages. Download the free application that will send you updates on your specific child’s development.
Co-create a routine.
Since mornings were getting rough and I noticed the reminding was about to turn into a cycle of nagging, E and I worked on updating his morning routine poster one day after school. We talked through specific times that were challenging to get through in the morning. “How are you going to remember to brush your teeth?” He enjoyed developing his routine poster. And yet again, it worked. Our mornings have gone smoothly ever since and I have been intentional about reinforcing his positive behaviors with comments like, “Woah, I didn’t say a word of a reminder this morning and we were out of the door on time. You completed all of your tasks and your backpack is ready.” Check out this video short on the morning routine if you need to revisit yours to help that time of day run smoothly.
How are you going to keep yourself accountable to the goal you’ve set? How are you going to remember to recognize positive behaviors? Sometimes, the most powerful accountability comes from those around us. So if you let family members know about the goal you are working toward, they can check in with you. Those small reminders can help support your habit change.
Though many believe that we are only hard-wired for self-centeredness and the good must be socialized into us, in fact, research confirms that we are born with both the capacity for self-centeredness but also, altruism and empathy.2 Our very survival is based on our ability to connect with others. Studies with babies have shown that even those new to the world will try and assist others – babies or adults – who are suffering and need help.3
If we view ourselves as here to “fix” our kids, our kids will feel as if they need fixing. But if we view our kids as learners – as inherently ready to help and do good – they will help and do good. And if we are able to regularly find and shine a light on their strengths and the many ways they contribute to our family lives, they will grow with an identity that is strong and resilient.
I was recently reminded of contributions my son makes to our lives that I tend to take for granted. My Mom came to celebrate her birthday. And her grandson made her smile and laugh nearly the entire time she was visiting. As she hugged me goodbye, she expressed how much she appreciated her grandson making her laugh and how rare it was for her to experience laughter daily in her own quiet household of two adults. I had been consumed with the chaos and busyness of all of my responsibilities that day. What an important reminder it was for me and a helpful wake-up call to recognize the significant contribution of my child. When he’s grown and moved out, it’s the laughter I will recall not the dirty dishes.
1. Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards; The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise and other bribes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.
2. Szalavitz, M. & Perry, B. (2010). Born for Love, Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
3. Keltner, D. (2009). Born to be Good, The Science of a Meaningful Life. NY: W.W. Norton and Company.