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.