Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reading into my life: Productive Praise

I learned something the other day, after reflecting on a visit to my neighbor's house, mingled with some of the wise words from books I've read in the last year or two.

My middle son, Mercy Child, needs praise and affection to flourish, and I don't naturally give it to him in an unmeasured, non-manipulative way. I'll just be honest here; often my praise has strings attached. I limit my kind speech to sing-songy praise when he does what I want him to do and expressly for the purpose of getting him to do it again. Like taking his foot off of his baby brother's face. And getting his fingers out of his nose/mouth/rear end. I can really feign enthusiastic praise when he obeys these directives. "Good Joooob, Babe! You did a great job of putting your toilet paper in the potty!" But I don't often praise him for his innate talents, his subtle progress, his growth and uniqueness. 

Last week, I took Mr. Mercy and Squeaky Pea over to my neighbor's home to see her family's many pets. He was polite, interested and a little timid, but he suppressed his trepidation so he could meet all the animals-- even a sheepdog twice his size. 

My boy was absorbed in the backyard animal kingdom, but I found myself fixated on his behavior, falling into my habit of critiquing and apologizing for his behavior-- even neutral actions like taking off his shoes just after my neighbor said we didn't have to. As if somehow speaking negatively about my son made us more agreeable guests.

Each time I uttered a negative or apologetic word on my little son's behalf, my neighbor countered it in her easy German accent:

"Oh, it's alright, you can take them off. That's the polite thing to do."

"Let him run around. That's what kids need to do."

"His vocabulary is very advanced for a 3-year-old."

I caught on to the pattern and tried to zip it. With each positive rebuttal, I choked back the words I wished to say in response, words to minimize or temper her praise. "Why do I do this?" I wondered.

When we got home, I commented to my son, "That was fun, wasn't it? Ms. Kat really liked you!"

Without skipping a best, Mercy Child did a gleeful headstand on the sofa and fired back, "Yes. I'm smart!"

My heart melted and sank. 

"Yes, you are very smart, sweetheart."

I was thankful for him to have this happy moment of contentment with himself. I was truly glad he felt admired and validated by my neighbor. But I was ashamed that my own words don't often build him up that way.

What he does get is my in attention, my over-reactive anger and nit picky criticism in constant supply. For legitimate reasons, mind you: such as peeing, sprinkler style, all over the bathroom floor. For the third time this week. Or pinching Squeaky Pea's thumb in the bedroom door, seconds after I've told him to be careful. Or insisting that I let him sit on my lap when I'm in the middle of a challenging tutoring session online. 

But these moments add up, blending together as the soundtrack to his life until the messages that he's not good enough takes root. On the flip side, my words (and others') can help him grow into the best version of himself.

Prayer: Lord! Have mercy on my Mercy Boy. Have mercy on me. I don't know the first things about raising this wonderful, messy, affectionate, smart, fun-loving, contrary, irksome, adorable boy. I pray You'd tailor my speech towards and about him. Help me to see him differently-- not as a mom in the battle trenches, but as a thoughtful observer. Help me to savor and tease out his strengths with my notice and kind words. And flood me with patience in all those other moments. The showdowns. The messes. The selective hearing. The button-pressing. Help me be firm, but not harsh.

These reflections were fueled by a couple of books:

Raising Preschoolers: Parenting for Today by Dr. Sylvia Rimm
Published in 1997 by Three Rivers Press
Psychologist and children's advocate Sylvia Rimm says that speaking positively about our kids to other adults, what she calls referential speaking, is the most powerful kind of attention we can give them because "small children believe that whatever adults say to each other is true; therefore, when adult conversation refers to them, they believe it" (75). What I speak now, helps form my son's identity for the long haul, for better or worse.

Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes in You and Your Kids! by Scott Turanksy and Joanne Miller
Published in 2000 by Waterbrook Press 
The misleading title belies the positive focus on fostering honor in your home. One of the "honor-based parenting skills" that has stuck with me since reading this book with a group of moms last summer was to be firm without being harsh, the latter behavior being one I often slide into when I blow a fuse in order to show I mean business. Turansky instructs parents to correct their children with emotions in check, using eye contact, gentle words and even a hand on their shoulder to get attention. Putting this directive into perspective, Turansky says, "children are not possessions to order around with harshness; they are treasures to treat with honor" (104).

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