Archive for the ‘Week 7: The Art of Encouragement’ category

Take a load off

March 30, 2012

“See, when you mess something up,” I muse, “you learn for the next time. It’s when people compliment you that you’re in trouble. That means they expect you to keep it up.” — from the novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini

I found this quote to be a helpful reminder about the hidden consequences of praise—that it actually morphs into pressure for our kids. I know it seems like they love it and they want it, so how bad could it be? Trust me. It’s bad.

Ellen's cool outfit

Ellen's cool outfit

It might help to know that when you cut off their supply, it’s not as though they’ll never get to hear it again. Give them space and time and they’ll start to receive praise from someone much more important: themselves.

Fenner (after building a fire in the fireplace): “My fire is good!”

Ellen: “Mom, my outfit is so cool, I love it!”

Charlotte (about her own paintings): “That was a fail, but this one is awesome!”

Praise coming out of their owns mouths is better than anything I could ever say.

And don’t forget about the old standby: I’m proud of you. That’s a lot of pressure too. I like to remind our girls, “It’s not your job to make me proud. I love you no matter what.”

So kick the praise habit and take a load off … off your kid’s shoulders, that is.

A night away

May 24, 2009

We ventured out for one night at a lakeside retreat last night. Something we’d done before, but not in a long time. In the past I would exhaust myself packing for me and all the girls – quizzing each of them on what they wanted to bring and helping them get it all together and then going back through all the details in my head and packing yet another bag: “They might need this, and what about that, and she’ll be glad if I bring this, and I’ll take that just in case,” and on and on. Jerry would usually end up sitting in the car with the girls at the agreed-upon departure time waiting for his totally frazzled wife to finally extract herself with a cooler of carefully-selected snacks and drinks in one hand and the final bag of just-in-case-they-needs in the other. If my own bag made it into the car as well, that would feel like a stroke of luck.

Then when we arrived, I would put on my referee hat and get involved with every little, “No, that’s my bed! … I don’t want to sleep next to her! … You got that one last time!” which would eventually be followed by the bedtime routine-fiasco of them getting up 10 times each and she doesn’t want that music and the light’s too bright and she’s banging on the wall and I can’t sleep … Like I said, we hadn’t done this in a long time … on purpose.

This trip was still a big effort, but nowhere near the amount of work it’s been in the past. We agreed on a time to leave, and the girls packed their own bags. I didn’t even check them. I overheard Charlotte say, “I’m going to bring 2 pairs of underwear, and 2 pairs of pants in case I pee!” Eeeeeexcellent, I thought. That was followed by one bout of crying: “I don’t know how to fold shirts … I don’t want it to be wrinkled!!! … How do you doooo it?!!!” which I promptly ignored until the problem magically went away.

Did they forget things? Yes. Fenner forgot her long pants and her sun hat, and Charlotte claimed she “forgot all her clothes.” I never understood what she meant by that, but we made it work and everyone did fine. And I was a better, happier mother for it.

Relaxed mom

Relaxed mom

Also, our revised bedtime routine worked surprisingly well in the new setting – there was much less bickering and not one girl came out of her room after we said goodnight. Not one.

Meanwhile, Jerry had ample opportunity to practice breaking his old habits of micromanaging and giving praise. This morning, when it was time to make waffles, Ellen called down from upstairs, “Dad, will you please get the waffle iron out? And I’ll be right down!” He looked at me and whispered, “I was going to make them for them this morning, just to give them a treat.” I whispered back, “It sounds like she wants to do it!”

She did. In fact, they all wanted to help and Jerry caught himself several times telling them what to do: “Let me tell you just one thing … Can I give you a tip? … Careful not to spill! etc., etc.” Finally he said, “You know you might want to … never mind! You’ll figure it out!” and he clenched his fist and banged it on the counter in frustration with himself. I said softly, “Honey, just stop talking, just shut your mouth.” “That sounded a little harsh!” he said. “Well, that’s what I have to tell myself!” I answered.

He quieted down, but then found himself watching them like a hawk. He finally decided to leave the kitchen altogether. As he left, he called out with a smile, “Hooooooverrriiiiinnnng!”

Charlotte's batch

Charlotte's batch

I call that progress. He’s also slowly learning the language of encouragement to use in place of praise. I’m committed to helping him make this shift. It’s so, so important. He is the main man in their lives right now. If they stay addicted to his praise, it will most likely affect the way they relate to men for the rest of their lives. They could very well go looking for the same praise from their boyfriends and do whatever it takes to get it. Yikes.

He’s on board with it. It just takes practice.

Pool practice

May 23, 2009

This morning we rallied for an early family outing to a local indoor pool. We wanted to beat the late morning crowd. Jerry, as usual, was itching to get to his yard work projects, but he’s learned how important it is to make play time more of a priority.

We had a ball playing tag games in the water together. At one point I said, “Charlotte, you used to hate splashing, but now you can handle it.” “Yeah!” she said as she rubbed the water from her eyes. Later she wanted to try her new goggles and Fenner came right over to help. I said, “Fenner has more experience with goggles than I do,” and I left them to figure it out together. Little by little…

Afterwards we were all in the locker room getting dressed to go. Charlotte stood there in her wet bathing suit. “Mom, what do I do now? … Will you help me?” “Charlotte, I’m busy getting myself dressed.” “Where do I put my wet suit?” “Well, Ellen showed me her technique of wrapping her suit up in her towel.” I continued getting dressed and glanced over at Charlotte as she took off her suit and left it in a ball on one of the benches. When I was finished getting ready, she was still naked and kind of wandering around the locker room. I said, “Charlotte, I’m going out to find Daddy. I think he’s waiting out there for us.” “Ok!” she said. I left her there in the locker room, naked and aimless. She can do this, I said to myself. It’s just drying off and getting dressed. She can handle that. There’s no reason for me to direct her or stand there and watch. Yes, that’s a brand new bathing suit and she might leave it there in a ball, but then again, she might not …

I went out and found Jerry in the lobby. We sat at a table to wait for the girls. I said to him, “Ok, everyone has their new bathing suits today and I’m going to trust that nobody will forget and leave their suit here.” “You’re not going to ask if they have them?” “I’m not going to ask if they have them,” I declared to both him and myself.

Ellen came out first, and then Fenner. We sat and talked and waited … and waited… Then one of the other mothers I’d made small talk with in the locker room came out. Our eyes met briefly and for a second I was afraid she might look at me and say, “Do you know you left your 6-year-old in the locker room to fend for herself?!” But, phew, she didn’t.

Then Fenner said, “I want to go. I feel like going to see what Charlotte’s doing.” “You’re welcome to do that,” I said casually, secretly hoping that she would. She did and came back a few minutes later. “She was going back to the pool to get her goggles and someone shut the door on her toe.” “Was she crying?” asked Jerry. “No, she was just looking at her toe and I said, ‘C’mon! I want to go now!’”

We waited a little longer and finally Charlotte emerged. She was dressed and she had her mesh bag. I could see in the bag was 2 pairs of goggles and nothing else. No suit. No towel. I mumbled to Jerry, “Oh, she doesn’t have her suit,” but he didn’t hear me. I watched her walk toward the door with Jerry and tried to decide what to do.

Just as I was about to say something, she looked in her bag and said, “Errrrrrrrr! I forgot my suit!” She hung her head and stomped back to the locker room, and I breathed another sigh of relief.

Jerry went with Ellen and Fenner to get the car and I waited for Charlotte to come back out. When she came I said, “Charlotte, I had so much fun swimming with you. I wouldn’t do things like this if it weren’t for you.” “So you’re glad you decided to have another kid?” she asked. “Yes … yes I am.” And we walked to the car together.

More power to her

May 22, 2009

I lay in bed this morning listening to Charlotte get ready for school, still in awe of the fact that I do nothing for her in the morning now. And I mean nothing. I don’t even give her a ride to school.

At 6:30 I was still in bed when she came into our room fully dressed with backpack on. “Mom? … I need a Z-share. This is the last day of Z-week.” “Ok…” I yawned, “So what starts with Z?” “Xylophone … or, no … zone! … Hmm … do we have any zinnias?” Jerry said, “Somewhere there’s a packet of zinnia seeds, but I have no idea where.” She heard Fenner down the hall and walked out of our bedroom. “Fenner, do you have anything that starts with Z for my Z-share? I’ll only borrow it for one day!” We smiled at the sound of Charlotte approaching Fenner for help, and Fenner answering in a kind way. That’s definitely a new dynamic.

Jerry looked at me. “So what are you doing this morning? Just hangin’ out?” “Yeah, that’s basically it these days!” “Boy, you are so much more relaxed. It used to be tough being around you in the morning.” “I know, that’s because I made it all my job. That’s the message we get, you know. Mom’s especially. A good mother takes care of her kids and does things for them. Even my mom asked Charlotte the other day, ‘Charlotte, what’s it like now having no parenting?’ She said it that way because that’s what this looks like to a lot of people. Because over-parenting has become the norm.”

It’s tough to buck that trend in the face of so much judgment. Like Vicki said, you have to put your ‘personal prestige’ aside and do what works for your kids. Even out in public with all those eyeballs burning into you.

As I got out of bed I thought, I do wish Charlotte would brush her hair this morning … well, if she asks me for anything before she goes I’ll try saying, ‘Yes, as soon as …’ I went downstairs and just as I got to the bottom Charlotte walked by and said, “I’m going to brush my hair … Where’s my brush!” She found her brush and stood near me. “Mom, is it ok if I don’t brush this part?” She held up the piece of hair that had gotten Nutella in it last night. “Umm, you choose,” I said. She grimaced as she pulled the brush through her hair. A minute later she looked at me and said, “Done!” I looked back at her and said, “Ok.” We stared at each other in silence. We both knew this was the moment when I usually say, ‘Good job.’ The silence lingered. I walked away. She walked into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, and started brushing her hair again.

Hmm, I thought, without that signal of mom approval she had to decide for herself if she was done. She looked in the mirror and made her own judgment: No, not good enough, needs a bit more. Her hair. Her choice. Her power.

ps Speaking of power, the effects of treating Charlotte as though she’s capable are turning up in unexpected ways. She came with me on my most recent trip to the grocery store and took one of the kid-sized carts. “Mom, we need Goldfish. Where are they?” “Want to go find them? And get these other things you put on the list too,” I said. “Ok, and don’t worry, Mom, if you forget something, I’ll remind you.” “Oh, good,” I said, “thank you!” (Last week she reminded me to get something and I said, “Charlotte, if it weren’t for you I would’ve forgotten!”) She went around and loaded up her little cart and we passed by each other a few times and when we were almost done I said, “I just have to get this last item on the list.” “Ok, mom, you get that and I’ll go get us a place in line!” She did, and as I joined her at the checkout, I noticed a friend of mine behind me—someone I hadn’t talked to in a long time. To my surprise, I stood there and had a long adult conversation while Charlotte quietly unloaded all the food out of both carts, got the bags, put all the food in the bags and lifted each bag carefully into the carts. My ‘attention child’ did not pull or hang on my arm or interrupt our conversation one single time. That night at bedtime I said, “Charlotte, that grocery shopping today went so much faster because of you. And I was able to talk to my friend, and I know that checkout lady was so grateful for your help with the bags. Thank you.” She giggled and gave me an extra hug goodnight.

Spiraling up

May 21, 2009

Relatively uneventful day. Mostly I noticed a higher level of joy all around, and I noticed how much power Jerry and I have to influence that. I keep remembering what Vicki said about how we all cooperate better with people that we like. So if I become more likeable, they’ll want to cooperate with me. Pretty simple formula! So I’m intentionally using more humor, saying yes more to their invitations to play, showing and telling them that I like having them around, listening more, and pointing out when and how they make a difference.

To put it simply, we’re having a lot more fun together. And I have the time and energy for it because I’m not so busy doing everything for them all the time. Works out pretty well.

Something I want to start doing more of: asking for their opinion on things, and being a quiet listener while they think about what they think!

Stay tuned …

Horse sense

May 20, 2009

Another Fenner story. This one was harder for me. At Fenner’s riding lesson, I took some videos and and then went to the car to wait for her to un-tack. The lesson seemed to have gone well and when she got in the car I said, “So, how was Travis today?” I turned and looked at her face – she was not happy. She mumbled something I couldn’t understand. “Not happy with it?” She shook her head. “Disappointed?” She nodded, working very hard to hold back the tears. I wanted to know more, but I could tell she wasn’t up for talking. “Want to watch the movies I took?” She reached out her hand to say yes.

(I can’t resist showing one of the clips – if I can’t tell her how proud I am, then I’ll tell you!)

As she watched them on the camera’s small screen, her body began to relax. “You know what’s not fair?” she said. “What?” “I only got to jump half a cross tie, and that other little girl got to jump a full one on Brickle, and I’m the better jumper!” Brickle is Fenner’s favorite horse of all time. “Hmm… Do you know why?” “No.” I struggled to think of what to say next. “Do you think it might be just because of the way Travis is with jumps?” I asked. “Yeah…and it happened last week too.” “Did you tell the teacher how you feel?” “No.” Darn, I thought. I wish she would speak up more and tell the teacher what’s on her mind. Let’s see, how could I encourage that? I had no idea. Finally, I said, “Do you know, if you want to request a different horse, how you’re supposed to do that?” “No.” “Oh…” I left it at that. She seemed to be feeling a little better and I couldn’t think of what else to say.

It was hard I think because deep down I was hoping my encouragement would somehow fix her disappointment. But I have to remember that that’s not the point. The point is for me to be there for her to listen and understand, not to make it go away. And just by doing that, she’ll be more likely to get up and brush herself off and give it another go.

Poetic license

May 19, 2009

Today Fenner presented me with a belated mother’s day gift. It was a collection of poems she had written at school entitled, “My Thoughts as Free as Horses.” I unwrapped it and read the title out loud and then started to turn the pages without saying anything. I didn’t say anything because all I could think of was praise! After a minute or so, Fenner started asking, “Do you like it? … Mom, do you like it?”

First, let me say that over the past couple of days, I’ve realized how often I say, “I like ____.” I’m trying to stop cold-turkey and at that moment it was really hard to think of something else to say! I finally started making some simple observations about her illustrations: “That looks just like your pet rat! / You made the O’s into apples. / Is that a picture of daddy? / Oh, it’s you doing a handstand!” After that, it started to flow a little better — that language of encouragement:

– “I can see that this took a lot of work.” “Yeah, it took a long time!”
– “Was it hard to think of all these things?” “Yeah.”
– “Which is your favorite poem?” “I like this one, it’s funny!”
– “Are you happy with the way it turned out?” Smile and nodding.
– “Did you write them directly onto the computer?” “Yeah, we used the computer.”
– “Did you have to write and erase, write and erase, or did they just come out all at once?” “I had to write and erase a lot.”
– “Which one was the hardest to write, and which one was the easiest?” “I don’t know, I’d have to think…”

Her answers were short and sweet, but I still learned much more about her experience than I would have just by telling her how much I liked it. And the amazing thing is that by showing my interest through noticing details and asking questions, she gets the message that I like it in a much more meaningful and believable way.

And then there are the poems themselves. What a treasure trove of information! Below is a sampling. Enjoy…

I am Fenner

I am blue-eyed and crazy
I wonder if my sister will ever grow up
I hear a horse neighing
I see my friends and me having a good time
I want my dream horse
I am blue-eyed and crazy

I pretend that I am a horse winning a show jumping contest
I feel alive and free
I touch my favorite horse’s leather saddle
I worry that I will hurt myself in gymnastics
I cry when my rat is suffering
I am blue-eyed and crazy

I understand that my room is a turmoil
I say I want a horse
I dream of being an olympic horseback rider
I try to get ready for school faster, but I’m lazy
I hope that Obama will stop the NECAP test
I am blue eyed and crazy

I Will Be

I will be a thoughtful, caring person just like you
I want to be a funny, likable person
I used to be a little girl who loved dinosaurs
I let go of many stuffed animals
I’ve forgotten where my dad went on a business trip
I remember what my rat felt like before he died


You are awesome and my pal
You wonder how school was when I get home
You hear me call your name when I need you
You see me in a sea of clothing as you walk into my room
You want to play with me but you’re working
You are awesome and my pal

You pretend you don’t care when I hurt my sister
You feel I can take care of myself all the time
You touch the keys of your laptop when working
You worry about the prices on the electric bill
You cried when our dog Tonya died
You are awesome and my pal

You understand when I have a problem
You say you’ll be there for me
You dream that I’d get along better with my sister
I try to but she’s too annoying
We both hope the parenting class is over soon
You are awesome and my pal