Like Nails on a Chalkboard

My lovely former neighbors came to visit this past weekend. It was amazing to see them – it made me realize how much I miss our next-door-ness. They very sweetly brought us a nice bottle of champagne and brought our daughter a book and some stickers. She loves stickers. She loves the book too. We read it together tonight. It’s a Dora the Explorer book. Since she’s never watched kids’ shows on television, she has no idea who Dora is but it’s a book, and she is a big fan of those. She fell asleep with it under her arm. I had to sneak it out and cross out – with a massive black Super Sharpie – the following sentences: Good fanning! Great counting! Good job! and Great climbing!

The overuse of meaningless praise in our culture – particularly with children – drives me up the fucking wall. Twisted remnants of the parenting advice from several decades ago that said constant praise would boost self-esteem. In the business world, consultants and trainers are paid thousands of dollars to teach managers and leaders the constructive use of positive or negative feedback. I know some of these people – I’ve seen their classes. Everyone should learn how to do this. Teachers I know are not allowed to write “good job” on papers anymore – thank god. But the average parent, who is simply trying to do the best they can, thinks saying “good job! good clapping! good pooping!” to their child is what they’re supposed to be doing. After all, who doesn’t want to boost self-esteem?

The problem is that it actually has the opposite effect in the long run. Big time. A lot of research has been done on this subject in the last decade or so. There’s even been news coverage on it lately. Po Bronson wrote a great article a couple of years ago – likely as he was working on his latest book, NurtureShock. And of course, now that the book is out (and on the bestseller list), along with others like The Philosophical Baby, there is more mainstream discussion happening (yay!!!). For those who are unfamiliar with Alfie Kohn and his brilliant books, Unconditional Parenting and Punished by Rewards, here is an article he wrote on the “good job” phenomenon. I think Alfie should be required reading for every parent, although a lot of folks would get angry about it. After all, who likes to be told the way they’re doing things isn’t necessarily the best for their kids? No one. In Our Babies, Ourselves, Meredith Small states that every culture – every parent – believes that their way of raising children is the right way. Unfortunately in western cultures – particularly America –  we got royally effed up by a number of mistaken beliefs about children that led to self-proclaimed experts spouting their own opinions that then became parenting gospel. Thankfully, research is starting to show us what’s really better (or worse) for our children. So for anyone who is willing, there is much to learn.

Of course it can be overwhelming and parents are busy people (many too busy to spend quality – unscheduled –  time with their children unfortunately). The bigger problem though, is an incredible resistance to change. It takes effort after all. And it’s very difficult to turn to a friend who’s said “good job honey” for the eighteenth time in an hour and suggest they read an article or two. Which is why I develop workshops for new or expecting parents. They haven’t figured it all out yet. Everything is so new, that if healthy seeds can be planted, ideally healthier parent-child relationships can grow. And every family has to figure it out for themselves – I just want them to have more information to do it with. This is my passion, it is how I believe I can make the world a kinder, gentler place.

One of my favorite responses when anything about conscious parenting, positive discipline, Non-Violent parenting etc. comes up in conversation is the “I turned out all right” statement. What I want to say is “Oh, so the depression/anxiety/inability to have a relationship/unhappy marriage/extramarital affairs/body issues/food issues/insomnia/anger management problems/hours of therapy needed/12 step program/pile of self-help books in the corner mean everything is perfect, right?” But I don’t. Our parents did the best they could with what they had. Today’s parents do the best they can with what they have. The thing is, there’s so much more to have now. And if there is a way to do things differently, even if it means looking at our own issues, taking a deep breath and wading into unfamiliar territory, don’t our children deserve that? They are our future. They will change the world. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could help give them stronger, healthier, more creative tools to do that with?

There were about ten years of my life where I couldn’t actually say “God”. I was so angry at organized religion that the word itself made me want to throw up. I’m better now. I’m hoping that one day, I won’t need to cross the “good jobs” out of my daughter’s books. But for now, I’m grateful for the Super Sharpie and a family that loves me anyway.

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~ by Alana on November 9, 2009.

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