Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What Our Kids Need to Hear Most

My sweet Madeleine is seven. She is studious by personality and will sit and work on projects for as long as it takes them to be finished. She is conscientious, responsible, and thoughtful. I can see these qualities taking my child miles and miles in her lifetime, but sometimes the cost of her carefully arranged universe is annoying. She is bossy. She doesn't hurry. She doesn't cut corners, even when we're late. And she is a stickler for details, openly correcting her peers, her younger "inferiors" AND grown ups when she feels they are incorrect or misinformed.

Katherine is our middle girl, and she plays the part with panache. She is impatient. She is messy. She is reckless, spontaneous, and at five years old has a wicked sense of humor. I happen to think that Katherine is hilarious, and I close my eyes and imagine that her college roommates will one day feel the exact same way. It's easy to imagine that this is what she will become, afterall, because she hears it all the time. From her teacher. From her relatives. From her mother. You are funny, we all affirm.

How much of our children's little personalities and behaviors are inherent, and how much of it is learned based on what we encourage in them? This is what you're like, my words and actions seem to say. But this weekend it was pointed out to me how often we parents only give voice to the most obvious attributes in our children, thus ensuring that they begin to categorize themselves in that same light. The quiet side effect of this habit is that we forget about the other corners of their developing personalities that might need a little more encouragement.

My friend Alison made this observation. She told me that she tries really hard to notice when one of her daughters does something well that might be harder, or less obvious given their individual strengths. The impatient daughter needs me to jump for joy on those rare occasions that she manages to wait her turn. The daughter who hates unloading the dishwasher needs a big hug when she does her chores without complaining. I could praise Madeleine for working hard on her homework all day every day, but that praise means so much more to Katherine, who struggles to sit still for longer than eight seconds.

It is easy to notice and compliment what is already "there" when it comes to our kids strengths. But as we watch them struggle to perform some of the habits and behaviors that are new, the ones that don't come easily, I think our positive reinforcement and praise might go a lot further. Afterall, if Katherine ever, in her entire life decides to clean something on her own accord, I suspect I will be so overcome with joy that the neighbors down the street will be able to hear my jubilant celebration taking place. I can't wait for that day. Every chance to build up our kids is important, but I'm focusing on building those areas that might require a backhoe to get some results.

What are your tricks on how to encourage and build up the less dominant parts of your children?

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