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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Helping your children hear praise and gratitude

Today I want to tell you how I knew I really loved my current partner.  I can say with confidence that it was the first time in my life I'd really loved, rather than being 'in love' or 'in lust', and I think it's worth sharing how I knew that.

You might wonder what that's got to do with childcare. The link is that word 'love'. For many of us, the love for our child is the most intense and unconditional love we'll experience; some parents describe being 'in love' with their new baby. Yet I can see that many parents and carers' loving intentions get lost in the process of trying to fit the 'perfection paradigm'- the perfect amount and method of encouragement, the perfect level of boundaries, the perfect number and type of activities, and so on. 

Relationships can be like that, too.  We can lose the love in a pointless quest for perfection.  Maybe if I share this little story, I can toss a bomb at some habitual behaviours which are totally counterproductive when we really love someone... like our child.

So, back to my love for my partner- how did I know it was the real thing?

When my new partner did something wonderful for me, the words 'thank you' flew out of my mouth at once.  That's not the bit that told me it was real love this time.  Most of us can manage a 'thank you' in those early, romantic days of a relationship. It's his response, and how I handled that, that I want you to pay attention to. 

He's a modest fellow, and he'd usually say 'Oh no, that was nothing,' even if I'd just come home exhausted from work to a spotless house with washing up and washing done, beds made, floor swept and vacuumed and animals all fed (we have a LOT of animals). 

(And no, he doesn't have a brother your age.)

But because I really loved him and I really wanted him to HEAR my thank you, I'd say something like 'Hang on, it's not nothing. It's everything. What I'm used to is coming home and having to do all that stuff myself, like I'm some sort of 24-hour slave. It really makes a difference to me in my heart when you do that; it makes me feel like I'm valuable to you. So thank you.' And give him a hug.

And he'd say something like 'You're welcome,' and smile, and I'd know he'd heard me.

That was love, part one. I really wanted him to know in his heart that I appreciated him, to feel it and hear it and get pleasure from it instead of letting his modesty block out the praise. 

Nearly ten years later, we still go through this routine. He still has trouble hearing me, and I still give him the details. I spend time making sure he does hear me.

Then there were the times when he'd stuff up. For example, he's not so great at putting things back where they came from; I'd be walking around for an hour looking for, say, the WD40 or the Spray-and-Wipe while he was at work, swearing under my breath- but when he came home, all I'd say was 'Please could you try to put the (whatever) back in the (wherever) when you finish with it?'

And he'd say 'Sorry, okay,' looking sheepish, and I'd give him a hug and that would be the end of it- because I knew he'd heard the criticism loud and clear, and I didn't want to rub it in because I loved him.

That's part two of real love, for me- minimising the time spend griping, because I wanted to spare him the pain of feeling bad about it.

I still try to do that one, too. He's very good at hearing criticism. Most of us are. You don't actually need to harp on it.

Making sure our loved ones really hear our praise and thanks is important if we want healthy relationships.  Most of us have had the ability to hear 'thank you' and 'you did well' taught out of us, in some weird attempt to prevent us getting swelled heads. We brush it off when someone makes the effort to praise us.  Yet when we aren't thanked for our efforts at all, we feel grumpy and hard done by, and may even complain to our friends or partner about it- just think of the last time you really put in at work, and nobody noticed. It feels bad not to be thanked. Yet it can also feel weird and uncomfortable to be thanked and praised.

Our children are our loved ones, too, and it's easy to pass this selective deafness on by modelling that praise and thanks are somehow embarrassing.  We need to model how to hear praise and thanks ourselves, and also how to make sure that our praise and thanks are heard.

That might take some work on ourselves! Maybe quite a bit!

At the other end of the scales, it's also important not to go on and on and on with criticism of our loved ones.  We might be, for example, niggling at our partner or our child about something that hasn't been done that we expected them to do. I bet the conversation gets a lot of air time, too; niggles usually expand to fit the space available, especially if someone bites back.  Just like a partner who's tired of the nagging, our children might pretend or act like they don't hear our criticism... but believe me, they're listening and they're hearing. Don't rub it in.

I bet you can remember some of the critical things that were said to you when you were young, can't you? Did you need it said twice?

So let's have a think about how you model hearing thanks, praise and criticism.  What do you say when a partner or a friend tells you that you look great? Is it something like this?
'Well, I just feel fat'.

Or, 'You're biased!'

Or even, 'So do you.'

(Go on, be honest.  I bet you've used at least one of those to deflect praise.)

And what's your reaction when someone thanks you, or praises your work?

'Anyone could have done it!'

'Actually I was really annoyed that this part didn't go better...'

Or just raised eyebrows, and a cynical assumption that they don't mean it...

If the split-second 'brush it off' is the way you respond when people say good things to you, don't beat yourself up- you're probably in the majority. It's not particularly socially acceptable to be gracious in many circles (the self-deprecating Aussie culture is particularly culpable on this one), and many of us have self-esteem issues stemming from childhood which don't allow us to 'hear' and believe the good things anyway.

Sadly, it IS socially acceptable to have a good old moan about anything that goes wrong and the failings of everyone around us.

But is that the balance you want for your children?  Do you want them to brush off the good stuff and give any negativity their full attention? When we pay so much attention to criticism and the unsatisfactory parts of our lives, yet push away the good things like praise and thanks, we're modelling that balance to our kids- probably at the same time we're reading up in the blogosphere about how to deliver meaningful words of praise and criticism to our children.  And frankly, I think that real life contradiction needs to be fixed.  We do need to work on ourselves a bit, so we aren't saying one thing and demonstrating another.

What kids will learn from hearing terse responses to praise/thanks and long responses to criticism is that it's not okay to do well, it's not okay to stand out, and it's not okay to be praised or thanked; but it's acceptable to criticise others and to worry about being criticised themselves. In short, they learn that the social mores of your 'tribe' are to let good things slip off their backs, while bad things should stick to them like burrs.

Here are some sample responses that aren't really that hard to say.  You can use them with anyone at all- get into the habit! Then you'll be sure that you're modelling a good balance to your kids.

To thanks:

'That's okay. I enjoyed doing that for you because I care about you.  And I love it when you smile.'

To praise:

'Thank you. It really makes me feel appreciated when someone takes the trouble to say something positive to me about what I do.  It's so much easier to feel good about (working here / doing the housework / whatever) when I know someone's noticed what I do; it's very easy to feel invisible otherwise.'

To criticism:

'Thanks for pointing that out.  Leave it with me. I'll think it over and get back to you.' (The End.)


'Wow, I'm sorry about that. I'll try to do better next time.' (The End.)

Nail those responses, or something like them, giving more reaction to the positives than the negatives.

Then make sure you give more time to your own 'praise' and 'thanks' statements than to your 'criticism' statements.  There's plenty of information out there about how to praise and criticise; just watch your time line, hey? 

Praise needs more time and detail, because thanks to that weird moral embarrassment about being full of ourselves, we're all deaf- probably even your kids. 

Criticism needs less time, because we've all got extra-sensory aural perception for that stuff.  Keep it simple, keep it accurate, keep it polite, and then shhhhhhhhhh!

Who knows? If your kids are actually hearing the praise, they may even start responding to the criticisms.  Stranger things have happened.  Really loving and being loved can do that to you.


  1. Another beautiful and thought provoking post!

    I love the line 'niggles expand to fill the space available" this is something I am going to take on board as lately I have been focusing on all the irritating thigns my husband does instead of all the good things. Not sure why I have been doing this, but I will do my best to curb it.

    Also the line " we brush off peoples efforts to praise us, Yet when we aren't thanked for our efforts at all, we feel grumpy" Arrgh GUILTY AGAIN!

    You make a very good point about not needing to harp on with our critisms.

    Think I might have to read this post each day for a week just to make sure it really sinks in!

  2. Also, I read this article a while ago which I thought was quite interesting and would be interested to hear your thoughts on it? if you have not already addressed this topic in a previous post?

    Since reading the article I have been making a concerted effort to have more cerebral conversations with the little girls I know.

  3. Me Again! I have just one more question.
    I have to put my daughter who will be only 9 months old into daycare while I go back to work 3days/week. In your experience, is it usually better to have the little ones attend 3 consecutive days, or should I try and break it up?

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful responses, EG! You'd better believe that I also did a lot of niggling in past relationships... which is probably why I notice the difference now.

    Re the daycare for your little one- in my experience consecutive days are much better for most children, regardless of age. It gives a bit of consistency and routine. But note that it's really important to talk to her about what's happening, even though she's so little, and to give her some time at care in your company while she gets used to the carers- and that's much more important than how you arrange the days if you're worrying about her being settled.

    Consecutive days will be easier on you, too; you can probably leave bedding and bags at care, for example- and anything that makes it easier in the morning will make you a calmer and more accessible mum. And that's the MOST important thing.

    Yes, I've read the Huffington Post article- I do see what she's saying, but I also think we can get too precious about these things. I think it's important that we talk to both boys and girls in the same way. Yes, I'll often comment on children's clothes as a way of breaking the ice- but no, I don't comment on unchangeables like hair, eyes, skin or body size for either sex unless I'm making a teaching point.

    To me it's much more important that we avoid giving emotional value to food, because to me that's a genuine starting point for body image issues- see this post:

  5. Thanks for your eloquent post. Awhile ago I convinced myself that I would always sat thank you after any compliment and stop dismissing them. It's still hard.

  6. thanks so much for your replies!
    *runs off to read food failings and fussy eaters*

  7. @ Scott- YES, it's still hard for a long time after you start trying! Been there! It's taken me years to get myself into a space where I don't feel like an egotistical fool if I don't bat away praise. Keep trying!!


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