Saturday, August 29, 2015

Judy - Self-Esteem Part 3: Praise and Appearance #25


Children are like sponges who soak up everything we say to them. If we say, “You’re so stupid or clumsy or slow,” they believe it and act accordingly. If we let them know we think they’re beautiful or smart or funny or creative, they will believe it and that is how they will act. The trick is how to let them know.

We know it’s important to praise our children, at least I hope we know this, but there is a right way and a not-so-right way to do it. The best way is to DESCRIBE what you are praising: “I see a nice, clean room with all the clothes picked up and the bed made.” Then say how you feel about it: “It makes me feel grateful because now I won’t have to do it.” I heard of one mother trying to come up with something positive who finally looked up and said, “You have a beautifully clean ceiling.”

The less-right way is to say, “You’re wonderful.” Although it might sound good, often kids think to themselves, Yeah, but if she really knew what I’m like, she wouldn’t think that.

One of the best books I’ve read on the subject is How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and How to Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlish. Yes, they are the same ones who wrote Siblings Without Rivalry. They not only tell how to use praise effectively, but also some of the problems with praise. For example, it can make the child doubt the praiser, i.e. “You look so pretty in that outfit,” might lead to: she obviously doesn’t know what looks good on me. A better way could be to say/describe, “That looks like it fits you. How does it feel?” This puts the deciding back on her shoulders and lets her know you have faith in her ability to shop.

Believe it or not, praise can also be threatening. “You did that project perfectly. Good job.” He might think, but how will I do next time? So describe what you see: “I see there is a lot of information on the poster and yet it is very neat and easy to understand.” This lets him know he did a good job because you’re saying the project was well done.

Vague, nebulous praise can even appear manipulative. “I think you’re great,” might make him think, why is she saying that? What does she want from me? So try something like, “I couldn’t help but notice how nice you were to that little kid. I feel so proud when you do that.”

Done well, appropriate praise can not only help a child’s self-esteem, but also help your relationship with him.


Another way that kids can feel good about themselves depends on how they look, or at least how they think they look. I found it was helpful to go to their school occasionally and see how the other kids were dressed. It can be enlightening and comforting to see all the boys slouch around with their shirts out, or all the girls’ hair looking like birds’ nests. My feeling is your child should fit in as much as possible among their peers. One caveat is modesty and safety-- if the order of the day is a sheer blouse with no bra, forget it.

Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to dress them well either. I read about  one family making $150,000 a year that had to “scrimp and save to outfit their kids for school.” Phooey! You don’t have to dress them that well, and if you feel like you do, maybe they should go to a different school. Besides, if you succumb to such pressure, what values are you teaching them anyway?

I’ve been surprised how very young children can be so opinionated about what they wear. I know several toddlers whose mothers won’t buy anything unless it’s kid-approved because that tiny little person absolutely will not wear it unless they like it. You mothers know who they are, and all I can say is Good Luck. Maybe when they go to school their peers will let them know whether an outfit is acceptable or not.

Another aspect of appearance is cleanliness. It’s amazing how much difference it makes to the presentation not only of clothes but also to the wearer. Some kids, mostly girls, are naturally clean and will pretty much take care of themselves. Others, (I don’t want to seem sexist here, but frankly it’s mostly boys) need lots of help keeping clean.

Parents can start when they are babies to get them into the habit of a daily bath. I have to admit I was not very good at this. When I had six kids under eight, I only bathed the dirtiest ones every day, and the whole bunch only on Saturday nights. Fortunately as they got older they were able to take care of their own personal hygiene and then they did much better.

Hairstyles are a surprisingly large area of contention between parents and children--again, even the young ones. Both of you may have strong feelings about hair and those feelings may not coincide. It might be helpful to see how all the other kids look and try to fit your idea into their idea of what’s cool in some kind of compromise. Some people spend all their energy into how their kids’ hair will look and then their parental credibility is shot for more important issues. My personal feeling is that hair is some of the “small stuff” as in “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Let them be embarrassed years from now by their class pictures, knowing it was their own fault and not yours.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Judy - Self-esteem Part 2: Attention and Touch #24


One evening when I was a teenager my mother was fixing dinner, and my three-year-old brother wanted to tell her something. She kept murmuring, “Mmmm-hmmm,” while obviously concentrating on her cooking. Finally, he pulled on her apron and said, “No, Mama. Listen with your eyes.” In other words, pay attention to me. Let me know I’m important enough for you to attend just to me.

When you can manage this, children get the message that they are of worth. Sometimes, of course, this is hard to do, especially when they talk at you constantly. And, frankly, most of what they say can be boring. Just do the best you can most of the time. I once read something that made a lot of sense: “Sometimes kids need a good listening to rather than a good talking to.”

Paying attention, however, means you should do more than listen to them when they talk. It also means notice them, look at them, study them, delight in their sweet faces, enjoy their gap-toothed smiles, appreciate their sturdy little bodies and their delicious little-kid smell.

This need to pay close attention holds true for all the stages of childhood. Sometimes it seems like people stop parenting when their child becomes a teenager. Just because you no longer need to monitor every oral and anal process, don’t abdicate your role altogether. The fact is, adolescence is a vulnerable age when they need you to attend to them more than ever.

Are you aware of what is happening in their lives? Do you know what classes they’re taking and how they’re doing in school? Who are their teachers and what are their favorite subjects? Do they have friends--this is a big one--and who are they? Can you tell if they’re being bullied, because they might not tell you. What are their strengths and what do they feel are their inadequacies?

I recently heard that there are classes that teach parents what to look for if their child is using drugs. What does this say about how much we are paying attention to our kids? I may be naive, but It seems to me that if parents spend a lot of time with their children, they will naturally pick up signs of unhappiness and possible drug use.


When my first four children were little, a new neighbor came to visit. We sat in the living room and talked while our kids tumbled around us. When she rose to leave, she commented, “You are the kissingest mother I’ve ever seen. When any of your kids come within arm’s distance, they get grabbed and kissed.” She was right. I felt like it was one of the privileges of parenthood.

Some people might not be comfortable with this degree of physical affection, but lightly laying a hand on a child’s shoulder while talking to him, or gently straightening his hair when he is close by will go a long way. And again, physical contact should not end when that child becomes a teenager. Touching, along with attention, also gives the message: I love you; you are important to me.

Studies have shown that children need touch like they need food to survive. We’ve all heard stories about babies in orphanages who actually died because of the lack of touch. On the other hand, babies in Africa thrive who are slung on the mother’s back all day and sleep next to her at night. I believe that not only do babies need the touch of their mother, but mothers also need the touch of their babies. One doctor said the gestation period for human babies was in fact close to eighteen months: nine months inside the mother’s womb and nine months outside, but still needing to be closely attached--sort of like the kangaroo.

As children grow, their constant need for touch may subside a little, but it never goes away. We are a sociable species who need contact, including physical contact, with others. There is even a malady called “skin hunger” which often afflicts older people who have no one to touch any more. (I realize that young mothers who have children constantly hanging on them might find this hard to believe.) The gentle touch of a mother or father speaks volumes to a child about how they feel about her whether she is two or twenty. As a daughter, and also as a mother and a mother-in-law, I still need to give and receive these tender contacts. As the saying goes, everyone needs a hug occasionally.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Judy - A Little Self-Esteem Goes a Long Way, Part 1 #23

The next few blogs are going to be about ways to increase a child’s self esteem. This first one will be more general and the following ones will be more specific.

One way to keep the fighting under control in a family is to build up each child’s self-esteem and feelings of worth.

But be warned, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this. The wrong way builds a sense of entitlement and arrogance. In my opinion this is done by never setting boundaries and giving in to everything they ask for. A wise woman once said, “Parents who can’t bear to hear their children cry are going to have hard children.” I recently saw a very sad case of this happening and it was not a pretty sight. In fact, people called those two kids “absolute monsters” and nobody wanted to be around them.

However, I’ll mostly talk about the right way. The better children feel about themselves, the easier it is to defuse the hostility that arises between them. When children appreciate their own abilities, they can use that strength to help other family members, as I’ve mentioned before.

First and foremost, they have to know their parents love them absolutely. I once read an interview with the actor, Will Smith, in Newsweek. He said, “There’s a certain level of confidence that comes from knowing for a fact that someone loves you. It’s not based on whether or not I break a window; it’s not based on whether or not my homework’s done. Just because I’m me, these people love me. So it’s like, I know I’m good. How can I let the world know?”

I believe all parents, if asked what they want for their children, would say they want them to be happy above all else. A high self-esteem is a good way to achieve that. In fact, it can also avoid all sorts of problems later. A child who feels good about himself likes himself, is comfortable in his own skin, and therefore others like to be around him. The end result is he has lots of friends his own age and a better relationship with adults. He doesn’t have to resort to obnoxious behavior to get attention. The first, most overall important ingredient is that someone, usually a parent, is head over heels in love with him. A child psychiatrist once said that the most important aspect of teaching children anything is that “somebody has to be crazy about that kid!”

The fighter, George Foreman, says that he was able to make something of himself when everybody else gave up on him and told him he wouldn’t amount to anything because his mother always believed in him.

In a family with more than one child, it’s especially important to convey respect, even awe, for each child’s individuality. In our house when we were expecting a new baby, we didn’t say, “What is it--a boy or a girl?” We asked instead, “Who is it? Who is coming this time?”

Most parents do love their children more than words can express, but problems arise when this message doesn’t get through. I once saw an Oprah show on parenting that gave some excellent suggestions for ways that parents could let their offspring know they’re loved. One mother said her young daughter was fearful about the first few days of school. So the mother sprayed a little of her own perfume on the girl’s wrist and said, “Whenever you feel worried, sniff right here and you’ll know I’m close by and thinking of you.”

A single mother of two boys said for the past several years she had put small notes in the boys’ lunch bags. Since they never mentioned the notes, the mother wasn’t sure what they thought of them, but she continued doing it anyway. Finally, one day in her older son’s room she found a box with all her notes from the beginning. Her second son then showed her where he’d kept all his notes--in a laundry basket in the back of his closet.

These mothers were creative in getting the message across.

A few ways I’ve found to communicate this love concretely is to 1)pay close attention when your child talks to you, 2)touch them whenever possible, 3)praise them often and correctly, 4)help them successfully accomplish chores and tasks, 5)let them know they are part of something larger than themselves (namely the family), and 5)monitor your TRC (Trust, Respect and Confidence) bank with them.

The next few blogs will address each of these subjects individually.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Judy - "Fair" is NOT the same as "Equal" #22

Parents will tell you that each of their children has a definite and unique personality from birth. Therefore it is unreasonable and ineffective to try to treat them all the same. It also happens to be impossible. It makes more sense to treat each one as an individual rather than as an equal part of a group.

A friend once came to me and said, “I have a problem I wonder if you can help me with. My younger son (4) has some physical problems and takes a lot of time and attention. His older brother (12) resents this and does all sorts of things to get my attention, especially tormenting his brother. What can I do?”

“Maybe you should try to spend some time with your older son, one on one, and don’t even mention the younger one,” I said. “Tell your son how important he is to you and how special he is because he’s the oldest. Tell him something specific about himself that you especially appreciate. In other words, let him know how he’s unique and valued, and how much you love his uniqueness.”

Later, when I was telling my family about this conversation, my own teenage son said, “Way to go, Mom! That’s right on.” I felt I’d received the stamp of approval on that one.

When children know they’re loved for themselves, they are then free to care about their siblings instead of competing with them for their parents’ love and attention. Then wonderful things can happen.

One Christmas Aaron was 15 and longed for a silver trumpet. He loved playing the trumpet but was not improving as much as he wanted to. With a silver trumpet, he felt his music would greatly improve. The cost of such an item would total what we spent on our whole Christmas, and Aaron resigned  himself to waiting a couple years before he could save enough from his paper route to buy it himself.

But Lloyd and I wanted to give him that trumpet as much as he wanted to receive it. So, after discussing it with the rest of the family, we decided to take out a loan and buy it for him. When we brought it home, we showed it to his sisters. Emily (14) was so excited she couldn’t keep still and had to clamp her hand over her mouth to keep from squealing. As a fellow musician and closest in age to Aaron, she appreciated perhaps more than anyone else what that gift would mean to her brother.

On Christmas morning, when he saw the trumpet, Aaron’s eyes opened wide and he whispered, “Oh my...” His hands shook as he took it out of the dark brown velvet-lined case. When Emily leaned over to take a look, she put her hand on his back and could feel his heart pounding. Emily’s gift was a simple pair of earrings, but she says it was one of the best Christmases she ever had, and so do her sisters. If we had tried to give equal gifts, nobody would have experienced the same joy they all did that morning.

Children want to be loved uniquely, not equally. To be loved equally is somehow to be loved less. When your little girl climbs into your lap, looks up at you with her big eyes and asks, “Who do you love best?” our knee-jerk reaction is, “I love you all the same.” That is not the answer she’s looking for, however. She’s really asking, “Tell me how much you love me.” A better response would be, “You know I love all of you, but there is nobody else like you. Nobody hugs me like you do, or draws me such pretty pictures, or helps me set the table like you do.” This response is answering her unspoken need and is much more satisfying.

Misguided attempts at equality can backfire. Jennifer had a friend, Beth, who received a beautiful dictionary for her 18th birthday (obviously this was before the days of cell phones). I don’t think my kids would have been thrilled with a dictionary, but Beth was very pleased and looked forward to taking it to college with her. A couple of months later, Beth’s parents gave her brother (16) the same dictionary for his birthday. Beth told Jennifer she felt like she hadn’t received a special gift at all, and that her parents thought her 18th birthday was no big deal. Jennifer told me about Beth, then said, “Stupid parents! Can’t they see what they’re doing?”

It may not be reasonable to treat kids equally, but it is important to treat them fairly, which is not the same thing at all. I know a couple who have a daughter, Katy, who loves ice skating and is very good at it. They buy her special skates and costumes and drive her all over the state so she can compete. When their other daughter, Lori, who is interested in computers, asks for money for software, the answer is always, “We can’t afford it right now.” The implication, of course, is that Katy’s interests, and therefore Katy herself, are more important than Lori. How is that going to affect the sisters’ relationship?

At sixteen, Kristen was having a terrible time in school. I knew something had to change. I was even considering home-schooling her. At a family reunion that summer, I talked to my brother Ron about it. He suggested she could come spend the year with his family in Wyoming. Kristen jumped at the chance.

As hard as it was to let her go, she spent her junior year of high school with them in Cheyenne, and for the first time in years, she enjoyed school. She went through some homesickness, and a few clashes with a different family style, but overall it was a good experience for her. When she returned home for her senior year, school was no longer such a nightmare.

This turned out to be the best solution for Kristen’s problem, though it might not have worked for any of the other kids. They weren’t jealous of her adventure because they all felt just as important and knew their special needs would also be considered as carefully as hers were.

The benefits of a good sibling relationship can have a lasting effect (so can a bad one, but we won’t go there). My sister and two brothers and I are still great friends, even though we live all over the country and seldom see each other. I wanted the same for my children. I had hopes when I heard Josh say, “I figured out that everything I know, Jennifer taught me.” One day the mother of one of Josh’s friends heard him say to her son who was acting up, “What you need are some sisters. They’d keep you straight.”

One of the most gratifying things a parent can see is their children as friends.

When Ellen was a junior in high school and Ben was a freshman, they often ran together to practice for the cross country team. I asked Ellen if Ben held her back since she was in varsity and he was JV. She said, “Maybe a little. But frankly, Mom, whenever you do something with Ben, it’s more fun.” When Emily was married and had one little boy, her siblings knew she had no decent pots and pans although she loved to cook. All the kids with jobs pitched in and bought her a beautiful cookware set. As thrilled and touched as Emily was with the surprise gift coming out of the blue, the others were even more excited to be able to do that for her.

Jennifer once said when I commented how happy I was that they were all such good friends, “Don’t you remember, Mom? You wouldn’t let us be anything else.” We always felt a great affinity for the family in the book Cheaper by the Dozen. The authors, Frank B. Gilbreth and his sister, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, dedicated it “To Dad, who only reared twelve children, and to Mother, who reared twelve only children.” Perhaps the secret of the harmony in our home was revealed when Jennifer said to me, “Each one of us believes in our heart that secretly we are your favorite.” And they’re all right.

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