Building Up Your Child
by Masha Wolf, M.A. in Child and Family Counseling, Practicing Child Therapist
We are beginning a series on child esteem, among other topics. Mrs. Wolf welcomes any specific questions on child rearing, and has taken some of the reader response from past articles (R' Zobin and others) to discuss. Upcoming is an article on anger in children. This introduction is more general.
Isn't it interesting that people always notice the negative things in their children and spouses without any effort at all? Why are positive traits always so elusive? Since the negatives are so outstanding in their loved ones, people feel they must make them aware of their faults for the sake of improvement. In reality, this couldn't be further from the truth. The more people, especially children, are criticized, the worse they feel and the more their self image is associated with the criticism or problem. On the other hand, when children are complimented for doing something right, they feel great about themselves and are motivated to continue to improve. When a person gets attention for the good things he does, it gives him the energy or fuel to continue to do good things. Conversely, if a person's good deeds are not recognized while their negative actions are, they may feel an intense sense of frustration and even depression. They may tell themselves, "I am a failure, so why even try?" A child may also learn that they get more attention by being `bad' and that it's a lot easier than trying to be good, especially without any acknowledgement.
Some parents believe that a child should not always have to be recognized for his good deeds because they are expected of him, in any case. We can understand the feelings of a child by examining the analogy of a boss and a worker. Think about a boss who constantly notices every mistake his worker makes and is quick to point them out regularly but rarely notices his worker's accomplishments. How will the worker feel? Will he do his best? How will he feel towards his boss?
How different is the working relationship between an encouraging boss and his worker! He always notices a job well done and is quick to acknowledge it. He may give bonuses for especially good work. In this case, the entire working environment is completely different. The worker will do his best to please, both becasue of the positive feelings he has towards his boss and because he knows his efferts will be acknowledged and, perhaps, rewarded. Children also need payment in for the form of love and appreciation for their positive deeds. Parents need to create the best possible `working conditions,' which includes compliments and recognition and an occasional bonus prize or privilege.
Everyone has days when everything goes wrong and seems out of control. A mother of ten who has had a stressful day and is at the point where she feels she cannot cope, needs to take time out to reflect on her accomplishments and energize herself this way, for if she focuses on her failings, she will surely feel unmotivated and unhappy. This is an important lesson for adults as well as for children.
Two techniques used to recognize the positive in one's children are PRAISE and POSITIVE LABELING. Because praise can be used to pass on information, it is important to make the message clear so that the child will know what is expected of him. Effective praise is specific: "I am so proud of the way you are sharing and playing so nicely together." Or, "I have such nachas from the way you are learning in cheder." "I like it when you speak softly." "It helps me so much when you clean up. Thank you." "You were so careful not to make a mess. Good job." "You really got ready for bed quickly. I'm so proud of you." Praise should be used freely and can be used to encourage children in areas that are particularly difficult for them. The more they succeed, the more they'll improve.
We know how damaging negative labels can be. Anyone who was ever negatively labeled usually remembers it for life because of the pain and humiliation involved. On the other hand, positive labels can have an equally strong effect when used appropriately. It should be based on real observations. The effect of positive labels cannot be stressed enough. A woman told me that as a child, her grandmother once told her mother that she (the child) was a hard worker and would succeed in life. 25 years later, she still remembers the label and sees herself as a hard worker, simply because that was how her grandmother viewed her, and her grandmother did not lie. It was something to live up to.
The best way to use labeling is by combining it with praise. "I really like how you are speaking. You have such derech eretz." "It's nice the way you share. You are so generous." "Thank you so much. You are so helpful." Other examples of labels are: goodhearted, baalas chessed, hard-working, talented, dedicated, creative and so on. If a child has trouble doing homework, he might have been called lazy, once, and he may think of himself as lazy or stupid. By noticing when he applies himself and is responsible, a parent can relabel him positively and train the child to think of himself differently. After several times, the child will begin to think he is diligent and hard- working. When used appropriately, labeling can be an extremely effective tool for changing problematic behavior, from trouble with friends and homework, to lying and petty stealing.
To be continued...