We had been taking his positive actions for granted; ironically, the more obedience he showed, the quicker we came to expect (and ignore) them. I can’t remember the last time I praised him for washing his hands, or thanking him for being such a big helper in the mornings. So that when a bad day comes smashing in, we’re left to think, Why can’t he just listen and do what we ask?
The rest of that day was madness. Nothing kills a Saturday quicker than a fussy toddler at 10am. We decided not to go to a family event at a restaurant because a cranky toddler is but two inches away from a full-blown tantrum, with nowhere left to go but home anyway. So we stayed in and comforted ourselves with frozen yogurt and a much-needed haircut for me.
Later that evening, my husband and I did another one of our debriefs, as we usually do whenever we’re ready to tear our hair out. We even read through our stand-by parenting books for reminders. And while the book mentioned several pieces of great advice, one that stuck out to us both, independently, was how we weren’t conscientious with praising his positive actions.
When kids are praised for actions that their parents want to promote, they’ll realize that certain ones tend to garner more attention than others. So that if a little girl willingly walks to the front door all on her own to put on her shoes without much cajoling, she’s much likelier to continue doing so if her parents pay her the proper attention: “Look at you, walking to the front door all on your own!” Even a simple hug and kiss after doing so sends the message that this is something that will get her attention.
Praising positive actions also reminds us parents that tough times aren’t always so tough. I don’t know about you, but whenever I have a tough parenting day, my mind is so in the moment that I poison it with negative talk: “Life is so difficult now with kids,” or “Why does he always have to be so difficult?” Never mind that most of the time, we have wonderful days. I’ve been much better about recording good days in my journal for the “proof,” but praising him as we go along will serve as a reminder to myself that it isn’t always so bad.
And if we ought to praise kids for their positive actions, the opposite can be said of their negative ones. Clearly some issues need to be addressed, and negative actions won’t magically disappear just by ignoring them. However, for issues that don’t call for a full-on scolding and are better off when looked the other way (ahem: nose-picking), we’re probably better off ignoring negative actions.
See, kids love attention from their parents, and whether that attention is dotingly loving or frighteningly reprimanding bears little to the message they get: when I do this, I get attention, good or bad. When kids don’t get enough of any attention, particularly loving attention, they’ll resort to negative actions to get you to notice them since we’re more likely to notice a screaming kid than one quietly playing. Hence the kid that won’t stop misbehaving because his parents pay him more attention when he tests their limits than when he’s coloring in his room.
That said, this isn’t a call to all parents to bombard our kids with nonstop praise. Kids can sense the phoniness in that. Or if they’re in the middle of figuring out a puzzle, for instance, you don’t really want to break their concentration with a five-minute hug-and-kiss session. Something simple as saying, “Thanks for playing on your own while Mama prepares dinner,” or even brushing their hair with your hand when you walk by is enough for them to know that what they’re doing is pretty darn good in your book.
Since that Terrible Saturday, we’ve been more mindful about praising our son more frequently but naturally and genuinely as well. We don’t take his positive actions for granted, whether it’s the times he comes to the table and finishes his food with no fuss or letting us know that he needs a diaper change. No longer will we ignore his positive actions in lieu of his less-than-stellar ones, including all the other times he willingly washes his hands.
How do you consciously praise your kids’ positive actions?