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A child's life is like a piece of paper on which every passerby leaves a mark.
- Chinese Proverb
The door slammed hard, shaking the wall with its force, as the ten-year-old boy rushed into the house. Dropping backpack, lunch box, and jacket on the entry floor in one swift motion, the boy hurried into the living room where his mother sat watching an afternoon news program. "Mom, you'll never guess what I got!" he said excitedly.
The mother looked up surprised by his sudden appearance, acted annoyed and said, "Wait a minute. I am trying to see what happened on the news." As she turned back to the television, the boy angrily states, "You never have time for me," and stomps off to his room.
The mother, no longer looking at the news, watches her son march off toward his room, starts to bark out an angry response, stops, and takes a deep breath instead. She had a hard day and wanted a few minutes watching the news to clear her head before her son came home. She wasn't expecting him home from school so soon. She didn't mean to ignore him and knew his feelings were hurt.
Knocking softly on the semi-open door of his room, she sticks her head in and asks, "Can I see what you got?" The child starts to resist but when the mother sits down on the bed next to him and puts her arm around his shoulders he quickly forgives her and shows her a bent piece of paper and proudly remarks, "I got a special award today for perfect attendance at school!"
This type of situation occurs every day in busy families. Parents, especially single parents, have little time to themselves. The days go quickly, filled with preparing kids for school, getting themselves ready for work, running important errands, and hundreds of other little details that absorb our time and energy. This makes it difficult to give our children our full attention and makes them desperate to get it.
All families have the need to belong and to be unique. A parents attention provides children with these things. It increases their self-esteem and guides their behaviors. Attention is a powerful reinforcer of children's behavior. What parents pay attention to will increase and grow. What parents ignore will fade away and expire. BRINGING HOME GOOD THINGS:
Children often get the feeling that what they do in a family doesn't make much difference. In nontraditional homes, children often feel as if they were to blame for their parents death, divorce, or abandonment. This may cause your child to feel as if he does not bring good things home. Think about a few things that your child brings to the family that is good. Do they come home with a cheery hello? Do they welcome you when you come home? Do they share with their siblings? Do they do their homework without being asked? Are they cooperative in the stores?
Even if you said no to all of these things, there are plenty of things your child does bring home that benefits the family. Even the worst child, accidentally helps out or cooperates. Catch your child being good and recognize it. Not with material rewards, necessarily, but verbal encouragement. A simple "great job" or "I'm so proud of you" or "I really appreciate that" are more than adequate.
It is important to praise a child's efforts as well as their end results. This encourages a child to try new things and accept failure more easily. Remember, children want to feel unique. Avoid focusing on the end result. This will cause your child to be competitive and experience feelings of or inadequacy. If you praise him for being smart, he will meet someone smarter. If you praise him for winning a race, he will encounter someone faster. And feel inadequate, as a result. Instead, tell your child that you like how hard he works on his homework, or how much effort he puts into running a race. This implies good things without the spirit of competition.
LISTEN FIRST, TALK SECOND:
The root of positive attention giving is healthy communication. Many parents came from unhealthy families, with unhealthy role models. It is difficult to teach and model what you don't know and easy to teach and model what you do know. The answer to this vicious cycle is education. If you learned something that was unhealthy, you can learn something that is healthy.
The first step to healthy communication is listening. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a good reason. We need to listen twice as much as we talk to children. But you do have a mouth and you do need to speak up. For example, let your child know that you heard him. This demonstrates respect for the child and makes him feel valuable that you know what he said. Simply repeat back the words. Don't worry about sounding like a parrot. That is unimportant for now.
When you do speak up, be sure to use open responses and not closed ones. Closed responses give advise, put down, or ignore the feelings of the child. Open responses indicate that the listener has heard the feelings behind the words. This is a little more difficult and may require some practice. When your child say's "I hate my teacher" don't respond with, "No, you don't" or "Hating people is wrong." Instead, reflect his feelings, by saying, "You are really anger at her." Open responses don't mean you agree or condone your child's word. They simply communicate that you are listening.
Other healthy communications include monitoring your tone of voice and body movements. Your nonverbal communication is as important, maybe more so, than your verbal communication. Consider what it was like growing up in your home. Did you believe your parent's words or their actions more? When mom denied being angry but talked through gritted teeth or started a cleaning frenzy, which did you believe was true? You might have agreed with what they said to keep from suffering the consequences, but it was their body language that told all.
Timing is important as well. Look for moments when you and the child are in a comfortable and safe space, physically and emotionally, before listening and speaking. You can tell your child, "When you are done playing, I would like to talk with you." Or when your child comes to you to talk and you are not in a good place to do it, redirect them by saying, "I am in the middle of cooking dinner and can't talk now. When dinner is over, I will set down and talk with you. Of course, you need to be able to talk after dinner or trust will be destroyed. It isn't a good idea to talk to your child when he is tired, hungry, or upset. Wait until the right moment to communicate.
A NEW WALK:
Today's parents are learning to walk in a new way. This new way is different from what you learned as a child from your own parents. It is a different society, with difference parental expectations, then what you were growing up. Consequently, this new walk will feel awkward and confusing. There will be times when you will want to give up. That's because old behaviors and habits are hard to break. Two ways to break these habits are "acting as-if" and "doing a 180."
"Acting as if" is a habit breaking strategy to learning new ways to walk as a parent. When you are overwhelmed with feelings of being a "bad parent" or "you blew it again" immediately begin going through the motions of healthy communication/parenting. Don't stay long in self-pity, get back into the family and act like the parent you don't feel. The truth is that feelings come and go, behaviors stay. Your "acting as if" will take over and dominate those feelings until more positive one's come, primarily because you're acting positive.
Children are victims of negative habits as well. When this happens, it is called a negative family script. Family members fall into old styles of interaction. Children will continue to treat the parent in this old way. Parents can do a 180, meaning they can reverse directions, and do the opposite of what isn't working. Instead of yelling, whisper. Instead of talking in the morning, try the evening. Instead of lecturing, tell a joke. Instead of talking at all, act like a mime. Doing the opposite of what you would normally do changes our roles as actors in the negative script which forces our children to change.
Parenting is a tough job. It is tougher still, when you learned unhealthy ways to parents. Walking in a new way will take time and courage. Be courageous. Use healthy communication tools. And never turn back.
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