Let’s go beyond “Please” and “Thank You”
It’s common to tell your kids, “Say thank you”, “Say please”, and “Ask me when you want to go to a friend’s house rather than telling me.” I’m sure you have many more directions that you give your kids to mold them into being appreciative children. You don’t need my advice in this arena.
What often gets forgotten, however, is that children learn about appreciation by how YOU treat them more than by how you tell THEM to treat others. Your behavior shows your children how much you value them.
Let’s look at the definition of appreciation: The recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.
As parents, it’s easy to get drawn into what your children aren’t doing or how they are acting that you’re not happy about. This focus can put a drain on your relationship. Instead, I encourage you to put specific energy into showing your children that they add value and meaning to your life. Here is a great idea!
1. KEY SKILL: Listen with Appreciation
We are so invested in telling kids what to do, say, and even think that parents rarely take designated time to listen. Over time, children learn that they will most often get attention when they aren’t doing what is expected of them; thus, we see the negative attention-seeking behaviors.
Bill had a teenage son who would spit around his dad because it caused his dad to get so upset with him. Once the dad understood the purpose of the negative attention-seeking behavior, we started to direct Michael on how to get positive attention instead. One strategy was to give his son 15 minutes of listening time each day. Often Michael talked. Sometimes Bill didn’t want to get into a discussion about the topic, so he would tell his son that he was just going to listen. (This is setting his personal boundary.) His son also tried to get into arguing for attention, too. We know that Michael feels appreciated by his dad listening to him and not engaging in arguing. The spitting to get attention has reduced, as well as his overall behavior of negative attention-getting. He feels valued and appreciated by his father, and Bill feels so much better now, too.
Showing appreciation by setting up specific listening time will make your children more cooperative and collaborative.
ACTION STEP: Set a timer for 5 to 15 minutes EVERY DAY to listen to each child privately. That means telling them you value their thoughts so much that you don’t want to miss a day of listening to them. Not “talking with them,” but listening to them. Before you attempt this, I suggest that you learn about how to listen without blocking communication (Chapters 9–12 in Ally Parenting) so you can successfully listen in a way that demonstrates how much you appreciate their thoughts, feelings, and who they are as valuable people.
2. KEY SKILL: Shift your thinking from “they are the problem” to “they are part of the solution.”
Parents easily get stuck seeing their child’s “negative” behavior as the problem. This then leads to thinking that if their child just stopped and acted more maturely, then everything would be okay. The child becomes the source of the problem because they are the one “showing the problem” of your interaction with them.
When you instead stop and appreciate that they want to act better and that they need help finding a better way, then you can appreciate their struggle. You recognize that your child has the ability to find positive solutions with your guidance.
It’s helpful to decide what goal your child is trying to achieve with their negative behavior. You can discern their goal(s) by how you FEEL in response to their behavior.
- The five negative ways of getting their goals met.
- Undue attention seeking – trying to get contact and belonging
- Rebellion – trying to achieve power
- Revenge – trying to protect themselves by hurting you back after they feel hurt by you.
- Undue avoidance – trying to withdraw with time alone yet doing it to excess.
- Thrill seeking – Teens need to feel challenged. This goal can lead to trying to meet their goal by thrill-seeking by many teens.
Understanding your child’s goal is one of the 5 steps of the Family Harmony System.
ACTION STEP: When you see negative behavior, such as dawdling in the morning, know that they would like to act better. They are just stuck in a negative cycle. (You may want to write yourself a reminder note of this fact and post it.) In order to shift to seeing your kids as part of the solution rather than the problem, at another time say, “We’re having a hard time getting out of the house in the morning. It looks like we need to talk about what’s going on and find a better way to handle the morning routine.
Whatever the challenge, keep asking yourself, “Is this something we can discuss and solve together, so I’m not the Director?” Then, bring up the challenge with your family and go through the Collaborator Role of problem-solving together. This is one way you will appreciate your children’s strengths more than just seeing them as “the problem” to fix.
3. KEY SKILL: Avoid shaming words that diminish the feelings of being appreciated
I often hear from parents about their displeasure with their children because they feel unappreciated and taken advantage of by them. The problem of this viewpoint is that blaming children takes away your power to actually improve the situation.
I encourage you to think about how your words may cause your children to feel unappreciated by you. The punishment approach to parenting is full of words that degrade children, so they don’t feel valued by adults.
Children learn from adults. So, if they don’t feel appreciated, how are they to learn how to appreciate others? You may think that saying “please’ and “thank you” is enough. The problem is that your shaming words may be more plentiful than appreciation words. Psychologists claim that it takes 3 to 5 positive words to undo the hurt of 1 negative word. With this in mind, replace shaming words with respectful words.
Most of the parents I work with have strong-willed children. These children value independence, and they respond negatively to being told what to do. To them, telling them directly implies that they are not capable of figuring it out on their own, that they are not good, and that they definitely don’t feel appreciated.
Here are some common commands that often feel hurtful. I’ll start the sentence, and you fill in the rest. Work to avoid these words. I offer more positive options below and a complete list in my book, Ally Parenting.
- You need to…..
- You have to….
- I want you to…..
- You are supposed to….
- How many times do I have to tell you?
ACTION STEP: Notice how often you use the above words that can feel degrading to your child’s ego. They also lead to power struggles. Instead, eliminate the “you” and “I” statements and try, “It’s time to…..”, “The agreement is ….”, “ The rule is….” and a favorite when used properly, “After you (work) …. then you can…(play) ..”
Keep in mind that the easiest and quickest way to get positive behavior from your children is to change yourself first.
4. KEY SKILL: Understand and appreciate their current maturity level
One of the challenges of being a parent is understanding our children’s developmental stages. Few parents study child psychology, so expectations are based on a lack of understanding.
As a result, it’s easy to disapprove of what children are doing because we have an adult vision in our minds. However, children’s logical brain doesn’t even mature until around age 25, so it’s not justified to expect any adult behavior until then!
Few of us really grasped this reality as we imagined lovely future times with our children. What about you? Did you think about learning age-appropriate expectations and how to be patient when they are acting as children?
Do you ever say, “You are acting like children. Grow up!” When you think of it, this really sounds silly, doesn ‘t it?
If you find yourself disappointed in your kids’ “childish behavior,” here’s an idea that will help. Rather than comparing your children to your unfounded expectations, openly observe your children and see areas that need improvement and areas they have already mastered. Then approach them as their teacher.
Do they know how to:
- Get themselves up in the morning.
- Get ready for bed.
- Do some chores
- Manage their emotions
- Say what they are feeling
These are all skills to be learned: Not skills they “should” know.
ACTION STEP: Listen to your language to understand whether you are stuck in a comparison rut between what you think they should be doing and what they are doing.
When you judge them against unrealistic adult expectations, you aren’t appreciating your child’s current developmental level. Watch for these cues in your language that indicate your judgment.
- “You should…..”
- “I shouldn’t have to tell you……”
- “Why do I have to keep reminding you…?.”
- “Why can’t you remember to….?”
Each of these statements points to the child as a failure of some sort, and I know that is not your intention. You will become the teacher your children really need when you appreciate who they really are and enjoy the process of helping them grow into future adults.
5. KEY SKILL: Make appreciation a habit
There’s something to be said about writing in a Gratitude Journal. It helps us focus on the positive in our lives and in others. However, children don’t read your journal, and they need to feel appreciated.
Children feel deeply hurt when you are disappointed with them. To offset this hurt, make a habit of thinking about one positive characteristic or action of your child daily and tell them about it.
I often hear about children lying or even giving up as a way to cover up their faults. Children may lie about completing their homework when they haven’t, so you won’t be disappointed in them. It doesn’t occur to them that eventually the grades will reveal their lies, which will make you more disappointed in them. In the moment, trying to avoid your disappointment in them is all that matters.
In regards to lying about homework, I suggest that if this happens, rather than getting upset with them for lying, use empathetic phrases instead so they feel accepted. Here is an example: “I learned that you haven’t turned in your homework. I’m guessing that there is a good reason for that, which I’d like to know about. Perhaps the work is too hard or too boring, or you just don’t want to do it. It’s important for us to discuss what to do about this situation.” Then I would suggest using the Collaborator 5-Step Process to find a suitable solution so they don’t keep lying. Read how a Mom created a successful plan with her son.
I digress, so let me get back to a way to regularly show your children that you appreciate them.
ACTION STEP: Make dinner time or family meeting time extra special with each person saying something they appreciate or admire about each other. Teens might roll their eyes at your request for them to appreciate each person, but they won’t stop you from saying what you like about them. If they get stuck talking about how they appreciate other family members, you can make some suggestions. Remember that you are counteracting the negative feelings kids have about themselves, so make this step a priority.
6. KEY SKILL: Appreciate to show value, not control
What did you learn about saying “Thank you” when you were a child? It’s important to understand that different cultures express gratitude differently. If you moved to the U.S. as an adult, the culture may be challenging to figure out.
Do any of these sound familiar?
Did you hear “thank you” often?
- You were told to say “thank you” when you received a gift or someone did something nice for you.
- You were made to write thank you cards.
- Your caregivers regularly said “thank you” whenever you did anything.
- You had gestures of gratitude rather than words.
Was “thank you” rarely said in your home?
- You were not thanked for something you were expected to do.
- You rarely heard “thank you” from the adults.
- You were expected to be polite, including saying “Thank you” around company and you were shamed if you didn’t.
- You sometimes felt “manipulated” by an insincere “Thank you.”
There is an important emphasis on feeling and expressing gratitude currently. Harvard Health says that research shows that feeling and expressing gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.
Feeling appreciation is difficult for children since it seems to develop with maturity. This is why I suggest showing appreciation daily in your family so they learn how wonderful it feels to express it and to receive it from others.
Be careful, however, not to say “thank you” in a way that feels manipulative to your kids. Use effective strategies instead to encourage positive behavior, and then thank them afterwards. Have words of gratitude come from a deep appreciation when your kids contribute to the household or help others.
ACTION STEP: Some parents grew up not being told “thank you” when they did something that was expected of them. If you did, I encourage you to say “thank you,” even if it feels uncomfortable. These words of appreciation are golden and will create a more loving and accepting home environment. So, start expressing gratitude daily, and your children will follow.
A side note: Make sure you are setting personal boundaries so you don’t allow yourself to be in a position of doing things you want a “Thank you” for and aren’t getting.
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