‘Children learn what they live’

A few weeks ago my 11-year-old son came home from a scout campout declaring himself to be the best pancake flipper ever. From that day until now he has asked me almost every single morning if we could make pancakes. The first time he asked, I didn’t have enough time for anything other than cold cereal, but I told him he was welcome to make them himself as long as he was also willing to clean them up. That was the first of many mornings my son has happily and confidently made pancakes for the entire family.

What brought all of this on? The morning after the campout when the group was making pancakes for breakfast, my son’s scout leader heaped on piles of praise and positive encouragement for his “flipping skills.” (We’ve had our share of Napoleon Dynamite jokes over this.) My son told me over and over again with a big smile on his face how his scout leader kept noticing and praising his amazing abilities with the spatula. And the results are irrefutable: He now wants to flip pancakes every day.

Let’s contrast that with my 5-year-old daughter’s pathetic mother (yes, me) who just last week got frustrated with said 5-year-old’s whining and crying because she didn’t get her way and ended up responding with a “mad voice.” The more my daughter whined and cried, the angrier I became. And the more I used my mad voice, the more she whined and cried. This lovely cycle continued until my daughter finally said, “I’m crying now because you’re using a mad voice!” I’ll admit, I didn’t immediately reward her with smiles and a happy voice — I was too annoyed in that moment — but as soon as she said that, I remembered my son’s reaction to the positive feedback from his scout leader. I knew my current scenario could have gone down very differently if I had just responded with patience, love and a “happy” voice from the get go.

I know it’s a not exactly an equal comparison — that of praising a child for learning a new skill versus responding to a negative behavior with patience and love — but the point to take home is this: Everyone, EVERYONE, responds better to words of encouragement, praise and love administered with a happy voice.

Think about it. I bet every single person reading this can think of a time when someone acknowledged, complimented or praised you for a certain behavior or characteristic. And you remember that moment because it felt good, right? And because it felt good, you probably wanted to do whatever it was that gained you such accolades over and over again. It’s behavior modification magic! We all love to feel noticed and appreciated, and when we do, the results are amazing. Wouldn’t it be nice to be that person for your own children?

Not to be a downer, but I think it’s also important to recognize what can happen on the flip side. How many times have you seen a mother (or any person with authority over young, innocent, impressionable children who are looking for validation and praise) yelling at or criticizing a child for doing something “wrong”? Just yesterday I was on the phone with a rather dejected young woman who, after several years of being out of school because of a lifetime of challenge and difficulty, finally decided to go back to get her GED. Unfortunately, when she wasn’t understanding a concept being taught and asked a series of questions, the teacher asked if she had a learning disability in front of the entire class. (Who does that?!) She hasn’t gone back since.

Then there was that day in Target a few weeks back when I was strategically avoiding “that” mom who couldn’t stop spewing negativity at what I was sure must have been the most offensive creature on the planet, but all I saw when I came around the corner of the shoe aisle was a wide-eyed toddler in a stroller. Don’t be that mom. I know how I’ve felt when I’ve started to go down that road with my own children (and heaven knows how it makes our children feel), so let’s all vow not to go there anymore. (Mind you, there is a BIG difference between scolding your child appropriately for negative behavior, and criticizing them unnecessarily for what is clearly your own weakness and frustration.)

This whole conversation reminds of a poem that is a perfect wrap-up for today’s post:

Children Learn What They Live” by Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.

If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.

If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.

If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.

If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.

If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.

If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.

If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.

If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.

If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.

If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.

If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.

If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.

If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.

If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.

If children live with fairness, they learn justice.

If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.

If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.

If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

QUESTION: Thinking of this poem, what did you learn growing up? What do you want your children to learn?

CHALLENGE: Make a list of the behaviors and characteristics you want to encourage in your children and see if you can’t praise/love/encourage them into success.

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