Certain things warm our hearts: a hug, a kind word, a home-cooked meal, a job well-done. Whether young or old, we all appreciate validation that we are loved and admired. We’ve seen the total joy on our children’s faces when we give them praise, and we’ve also seen the devastation that criticism can cause. Despite that crushing result, we often feel that evaluation is necessary. We believe we can correct some on-field errors through our instruction offered right after a game or practice, surrounding our critique with praise for our children’s other efforts. Nevertheless, kids so often block out the compliments and only hear the reproaches. How often have we heard our kids say, "You never say anything good about what I do?" We’re shocked because we know that we have heaped far more approval on our children than disapproval. Yet even we adults dwell on that one negative comment our boss or fellow worker made, blocking out all the positive remarks.
Therefore, kids will do well with some non-verbal confirmation of how wonderful we think they are. Several options exist to give our children the approval they so crave and we so want to give them. The best forms of non-verbal praise come as a surprise and aren’t attached to any particular performance. It’s important that kids know we are watching them and seeing the great persons they are in every moment of every day. They don’t have to score a goal or make a brilliant pass to deserve affirmation. They just have to be bright, happy kids.
Notes are an easy and unexpected way to give our kids a hug without being with them. Post-a-notes make an excellent resource for these stealth messages. Stick a positive note in a text book, on a homework sheet, in a lunch box, or on a calculator. Make the note brief, personal and heartfelt. Kids can smell an insincere attempt to be a "good parent" with these notes. For example, if your child struggled with math homework, even having a meltdown because she couldn’t get how to do the problems, then put a note on the completed homework sheet saying, "I know this was tough but I’m proud of you for sticking with it." If your child has a particular treat he likes, stick one in the lunchbox with a note saying, "you deserve something special today." Flipping through a few pages of an English or history book and inserting a note will be a pleasant surprise, especially if the subject isn’t your child’s favorite. Tell her to have a great day or thank her for paying attention in class. There are dozens of messages you could send, and you know your child best, so find what you know will touch the heart of your child.
I’m a great believer in hugs. Recently my grandson’s moodiness on a trip was getting to me. He’s nearly 13, so it’s not unusual for a child that age to take a dark and belligerent approach to a new situation. He also wasn’t feeling his best, so that just added to his poutiness and foot shuffling. As I tried to get him in a good mood and then ended up getting exasperated, I realized that my behavior was only having a negative effect on his behavior. So in the damp of the caves under Niagara Falls, I asked, "Do you need a hug?" He nodded vigorously and with a sudden rush the floodgates of his emotions opened, and sobbing (both of us) we had a good long hug. I could actually feel the darkness lift. We got the mutual support we needed and exchanged the love we both felt. You can also give hugs just because it’s Wednesday or you are passing by your child sitting at a table. Hugs can really give a child a quick boost of affection and reinforcement. Some families have a difficult time showing affection, and I hear you loud and clear. I didn’t grow up with touching, so learning to do it with my own children didn’t come naturally. But I can attest once you do it and feel the welcome joy flowing back to you, you’ll be hooked.
Some families hold a celebration once a week for each of their children. It can be as simple as a special dessert or as complex as an entire day where the child gets special attention. We used to do "conversation starters" at meals, where the child of the day got to tell about his day and then pick a topic for everyone to discuss. You can also play a board game together and let the kids decide on the game, which can create opportunities to share a laugh and some fun. Be sure to keep the mood light so the competition doesn’t turn into conflict. Games like Pictionary or Mad Gab can insure that it’s not about winning but about having a good time and being silly. You can create teams with one adult or older child on each team to help balance out experience and abilities. Letting the "child of the day" pick the game gives her some authority which builds self-image.
You can create a scrapbook for various occasions and activities that you can give for no special reason. I have about as much visual creative talent as an earthworm, so I depend on the kindness of craft store employees and pre-packaged scrapbook kits. But if you have the talent, let it loose with more elaborate approaches. You can do a scrapbook about a school play or concert that includes the program, photos of the event, and any preparatory materials the teacher used such as a script or musical scores. If grandparents sent congratulatory notes, stick those in there as well. Use your imagination in terms of what to include. If you make a scrapbook for a soccer tournament, you might want to add in the airplane boarding passes or a road map along with photos. Put the brackets in there and the scores. Whether a winning tournament or not, you child will appreciate the memories your scrapbook evokes for him or her. Don’t forget to take, label and include a team photo. Years later it will be fun to remember who was on the team and to see what they are doing now. You can also make a scrapbook for a year in school including a class picture, your child’s school photo, the teacher’s name and photo, a list of the textbooks, projects that your child completed during the year, report cards, and great accomplishments. You can make nearly any occasion or period of time the subject of a scrapbook. You decide what your child might like to remember years later and what your child will take pride in.
Speaking of pride, we kept a "wall of fame" in our kitchen. The kids could decide what they wanted to post on the wall. Sometimes it was a perfect spelling test, sometimes a ribbon from a tournament, or sometimes a special drawing. Every few weeks we’d rotate out items and add new ones, so the wall was always fresh and special. We didn’t need to verbally express pride, although that was also important, since our pride was evident in how prominent this display was. Allowing the kids to decide what they thought was special and worthy of note meant that sometimes we discovered things we didn’t expect. These revelations allowed us to find more avenues to giving praise and to paying attention to accomplishments. More significantly, the wall ironically provided a window into their lives that was completely defined by their own measurements of what was worthy and expressive.
Saying "I love you" and "good job" are meaningful and necessary, but aren’t sufficient. Words can be so transitory and unheard. Actions often speak louder than words, and any action that is accompanied by a tangible confirmation leaves lasting evidence of love. Kids will definitely appreciate the extra strokes a note, hug, treat, and memorabilia bring. Even better, you’ll get a warm fuzzy knowing the impact your personal touch has. Enjoy these moments.