Last month, I discussed ways that parents can strengthen positive feelings in their relationships with their children. In today’s post, I will offer additional recommendations for how we can maintain an attitude of “positiveness,” even when we are frustrated by children’s challenging behaviors.
In her book, Mindset, psychologist Carol Dweck offers important insights into the qualities of outstanding teachers. Dweck describes, for example, the teaching method of Dorothy DeLay, teacher of Itzak Perlman and other great violinists at the Julliard School. One of DeLay’s students described his instruction from DeLay:
“We were working on my sound, and there was this one note I played, and Miss DeLay stopped me and said, ‘Now that is a beautiful sound.’ She then explained how every note has to have a beautiful beginning, middle, and end, leading into the next note.” And the student thought, “Wow! If I can do it there, I can do it everywhere.” (1)
Teachers like Dorothy DeLay should be role models for us, as parents. Like inspiring teachers, we should listen for the “beautiful sound.” We can remain positive when we acknowledge a child’s effort and progress, and when we make note of every improvement, not every mistake.
• A Language of Becoming
Family therapist Ellen Wachtel advises parents to cultivate, in talking with their children, a “language of becoming.” Wachtel explains that a language of becoming is “a way of speaking to our children that enables them to see themselves as continually evolving and changing” and “developing emotional strengths.” This way of speaking allows us to notice a child’s “new actions” and focus on what is positive and hopeful, rather than problematic, in his behavior.
Wachtel offers this example: “When a child has had an explosive episode but eventually calms himself down and talks about the problem rationally, a parent has the choice of focusing either on the explosion or on how the youngster was able to calm himself down enough to have a rational discussion about the problem.” Focusing on how he was able to calm himself supports his developing maturity. (2)
The psychologist and philosopher William James once wrote to a student, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”
James’ statement (thanking his student for a gift) may have been half in jest, and I don’t know if James was entirely right in this belief. There are, of course, other principles and cravings in human nature. It is certainly true, however, that expressions of appreciation are invaluable in all relationships, including parent - child relationships.
Appreciation is a little bit like oxygen. We can survive with less than optimal oxygen, but we do not survive well. We suffer symptoms - some visible, others insidious. It is the same with appreciation. Without enough appreciation, we begin to suffer vague symptoms (especially diminished enthusiasm) although we may not know what is causing them. Without this psychological oxygen, our minds begin to divert resources and energy, resources that should be used to pursue interests and joy, into self-protective attitudes - defensiveness and demands. We become resentful and secretive.
Appreciation is the antidote for resentment.
We should express appreciation often to our children - for the little things they do, for their cooperation and helpfulness, and for their expressions of concern for others. If we say ”thank you” to them, they will more often say “thank you” to us.
• “I’m proud of you.”
All children want their parents to be proud of them, just as parents want to be proud of their children. Our children’s feeling – their inner certainty – that we are proud of them is an essential good feeling, an anchor that sustains them in moments of discouragement and self-doubt.
We therefore need to let our children know that we are proud of them, not for their intelligence or their talents, but for their effort and for the good things they do for others. We should tell them, for example, “That was a really nice thing you did when you helped your friend (or sister, or brother)” or “I can see that you really worked hard on that project, even though you would rather have been doing something else. I’m proud of you for that.”
In these ways, we not only help restore positive feelings in our relationships with our children, we also strengthen their inner resources. Our expressions of encouragement, appreciation, and pride, and our recognition of their “becoming,” remain with them as a lasting source of emotional support.
(1) Dweck (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, p. 193.
(2) Wachtel, E. (2001). The Language of Becoming: Helping Children Change How They Think About Themselves. Family Process, 40(4), 369–383.
Copyright Ken Barish, Ph.D.
Kenneth Barish, Ph.D. is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems.