There is value in praising our children effectively, and often.
Parenthood hits most of us like a whirlwind the very first time. Remember fumbling through parenting manuals scavenging for monthly “survival” tips?
Yet, from the moment we become parents, we pick up the language of affection almost effortlessly and instinctively.
“Adorable!”, “How precious!” “What a cutie!”, “He’s gorgeous!” we gush, lost in the gurgles of the little wide-eyed human who has completely swept us off our feet.
Our praise flows unreservedly when our child nibbles on his first food, takes his first walk, and ambles sheepishly down the aisle of the kindergarten graduation runway. The parent paparazzi in us angles for the best photo shot while cheering “Good job!”, “Well done!”, “You did it!!”
As our children grow, we try to keep up with the rigours of more advanced parenting. Our children have gotten niftier and are start to test our carefully constructed boundaries. These are the days of tired parenting; trying to keep up with schedules and homework while plodding to the finish line. Our children too, try to keep pace with our expectations.
We now have many words to describe our children, simply because we have begun to discover so much more about them. We would prattle on when given a chance, about their unique personalities, and the little things that drive us up the wall.
While the kids remain a constant subject of our conversations, we seem less effusive and forthcoming with our praise. Some of the things that we say are not as nice sounding as before. Along the way, affirmation – what used to be the simplest, most natural and empowering thing to do – has ended up the hardest of all.
Raising the Bar on Praise?
Why does praising and affirming our children suddenly require more effort than it used to? Praise suddenly isn’t second nature, and is instead reserved for rarer and “worthier” occasions. We seem to have unwittingly raised the bar for praise. Have we allowed the cynicism and stress in society to rub off on the way we see our children?
As a mother to five, the journey of affirmation is one that I constantly work on. It is easier to allow criticism to roll off my lips than to consistently give praise when due. Our children on the other hand, are creatures powered by affirmation. It is the fuel of life-giving words that energises them to do better and be better than they already are.
One incident woke me up to how affirmation can be a powerful centrepiece within a child’s heart and mind. A few years ago, my then 6-year-old son, was making some effort to learn his weekly Chinese spelling list. After working at it for some time, he handed me the list to be tested.
Amazingly, at the top right hand corner of his exercise book, he had written a 10/10 and drawn himself 10 stars. Curious, I asked him why he awarded himself the marks and stars prior to being tested. He explained with a cheeky smile: if he made one mistake, he would strike off one star but he would still have nine stars left! His positive self-grading made him feel empowered to do well. In his childlikeness, each correct answer deserved due “recognition”.
In the same way, affirming our children requires us to celebrate what is already there. Sadly, we tend to focus on what is not! In affirming a child, we are telling them that we do see, that we notice and we do appreciate. In a world saturated with all kinds of distractions and negativity, seeing and appreciating is a compelling way to communicate love.
Here are some ways our family has sought to practice affirmation in our household:
Praising Character Over Results
We like to affirm our children for demonstrating positive traits and making a good effort regardless of a task’s outcome. If my five year old displayed patience in waiting for her turn, we would acknowledge and thank her for it. My 10-year-old son is responsible for taking out the trash, and when he does so, even though it is his duty to do so, I still thank him to appreciate the fact that he has done it faithfully. Similarly, my husband and I make an effort to affirm acts of kindness that the children extend to the rest of the family. Over the years, it has established a baseline for respect and honour in our home. This has helped our children to appreciate the importance of giving help and showing kindness without being asked.
Being Merciful in Speech
Affirmation is not just about what we say but also what we choose not to say. We practice mercy to avoid going down a harsh and destructive path with our words, no matter how much we feel the situation warrants it. This is where it gets challenging. Plainly put, affirmation is hard to practice when things go wrong.
“Why didn't you…”,”You should have done this…”, “What can't you be more…l?” are commonly heard refrains that focus on blame. A wise saying goes: “Be sure to taste your words before you spit them out.”
As adults, we can choose to communicate grace in how we respond to our children's failures when things do not work out as planned. “Don't worry, we will find a way to get through this somehow…” can be healing and affirming when unconditional support and acceptance is communicated.
Calling it Out!
The magic of affirmation too, lies in seeing what is hidden and calling it out. It is seeing past the flaws and mistakes of the ones we love and speaking what is not yet there, into being. Affirming our children requires us to intentionally look past their inadequacies and focus on who they can eventually become. I find it useful to imagine each of my children with a love tank and ask myself – how can I call out the best in my child today? The answer to that, very often guides me to do what is needed.
Tracey Or is a mother of five and a freelance writer. She blogs at memoirsofabudgetmum where she shares parenting anecdotes, recipes and frugal fun activities.