I haven’t looked into the research studies I’m sure exist, but we can all agree anecdotally, based on what we’ve seen all around us and inside ourselves as well, that it’s generally far easier to see the negative about ourselves than the positive. Maybe we all carry a sort of “historical memory” – something within, reminding us we’re descended from Adam and Eve and are, thus, prone to mess things up. Or maybe it’s the result of the sorting and stacking sadly inherent in our culture, where a person learns to rate himself horizontally – comparing himself to others – instead of thinking vertically and tracking his own unique, individual growth over time. I think, too, that as Christ-followers we aim (appropriately) to guard against sinful pride. But we can go too far and end up believing – and teaching our kids – that any pride is bad.
Of course, we all know parents who act as if their kids can do no wrong, a practice fraught with its own serious perils. But, generally speaking, the fact remains that most of us probably need to be more intentional about letting our kids know we believe in them and are proud of them.
One way to work on that is to decide to stop seeing our kids as the culture does. Specifically, we must choose to avoid comparing one child to another – whether at home or in school or community groups – and, instead, embrace each one’s unique, God-ordained personality, strengths and weaknesses, interests and talents. When we compare children against each other, the focus is on “better” or “worse,” and it often becomes impossible for a child – or her parent – to see her for who she really is. But when we choose a different focus – evaluating how a child is doing today in math or truth-telling or archery skills in relation to how she was doing last week, month, or year – growth and improvement becomes far clearer. And then we can more easily encourage the child.
Another way to be intentional is to be specific. Kids have a hard time embracing generalized statements – “I believe in you!” or “I’m proud of you!” In fact, when I’ve said that to my kids on the fly, they dismiss it with, “You have to say that; you’re our mom.” But when we choose specificity – “That was a tough situation. I’m really proud of you for speaking up firmly but kindly just now,” or “I’ve heard you at every lesson and as you practice every day, so I believe you can nail the solo at tomorrow’s recital.” – we let our kids know we’re paying close attention to their efforts, which enables them to more readily internalize what we say.
Because we do seem so prone to accept the negative about ourselves, criticism sticks much more readily than praise; when I scold or even appropriately critique one of my kids, I can see in her eyes that it cuts her to the quick. Conversely, it seems I must offer a dozen legitimate, specific praises before a child “owns” a compliment. We obviously need to correct our kids as necessary, but they desperately need us as their parents to point them to their strengths via specific, intentional praise. Building that sort of pride is healthy and good, ultimately leading a child to proclaim, “Look at the blessings God has built into me! I’m going to do my best to use them for Him.” They need our legitimate affirmation to get there.