James and I are taking a parenting class offered by August's school. The class is called Parenting with Love and Logic (the link goes to a book by the same name). The basic idea is to use empathy with our children in order to empower them to handle their own problems and decisions.
One of the keys is that the empathy has to be genuine, and that children have to feel that they are wholly loved and supported by their parents (and caregivers). One small way of doing this is making every hello and goodbye an event, to take a moment to look our kids in the eyes during these greetings. The Love and Logic way suggests another subtle, profound way to connect with our kids, too, that I've started doing.
I've started noticing. I try to pay close attention to my kids at least once each day—which may sound silly, but with three kids and dinner to be made and laundry to be folded and toys to be stepped on and poems to be read, it isn't so easy to quietly pay attention to any one person—and then to remember to tell them later something I noticed about them that day. And the whole point is just to notice—not to praise or pass value, just notice. As in, "I noticed you spent the entire day on your Lego set", or, "I noticed how much fun you had riding your bike this morning", or "I noticed you worked on your serve in tennis class this afternoon."
As difficult as it is, I don't tack on a "good job!" at the end of each statement, or a "that was cool", or anything else. It's a simple observation, nothing more. (Though if you wanted to take it a tiny step further, you could: check out this excellent post from one of the founders of Love and Logic parenting).
But think of how profound it is! Basically, in each one of these "I notice" statements, I am telling my child that I see him or her and that I am paying attention to who s/he is in the world. I'm not attaching my own value or judgment—this isn't about me, or about how the child meets my expectations. It's about allowing my child to be himself or herself, while simultaneously letting my child know that I see (and love) him/her. Which brings to mind the idea of bearing witness, and the power to be found in seeing someone and holding space for them.
This practice could serve us well in all of our relationships. Think of the power of telling a spouse or partner something you notice about them during the day: I noticed you had that really hard conversation with your boss today. Or I noticed you wore those new leopard-print shoes today, or I noticed you talk to your parents this morning. How did that feel?
Of course I think about mothers, too, the most important invisible people any of us will ever know: I noticed you took all three kids to the grocery store this afternoon even though you were already exhausted. Or I noticed you didn't give in when your son begged for a treat in the candy aisle. Or I noticed the way you smiled as you watched him take a bagel from the bin. Or I notice that you are doing all the things, Mama. All the things.
This practice has been so powerful for me, partly because it's made me realize how much in my own head I am, how much I focus on myself and my experience of my children and parenthood. When you are noticing someone else, you have to let all of that go, and the noticing places the attention squarely outside of oneself. It can lead to delight, and to relishing a moment, à la Vonnegut. (Though let's be honest, there have been days when all I've wanted to say is, I noticed what a complete jerk you were to your brother all day long).
I dare you to try it. Try it with your kids (easy!), try it with your spouse (hard!), try it with the mother desperately walking the aisles of the grocery store, kids in tow (generous beyond imagination!). And come back here and tell me how it went.
Photos by me. Special thanks to Sonia for the title for this post! I'd come up with something really descriptive—and lame—but she brought a little sass to the game. 😉
This is very similar to a parenting book I read a couple of years ago when we were dealing with some challenging behavior in Jonah. The book had a lot more to it, but the very first step was this (the book called them Kodak moments, I think). I believe the next step, once you'd mastered simply noticing and showing your child that they don't need to be bad (or good) in order to get your attention, was to tack on some very specific praise for a behavior you want to reinforce, for example: "I noticed you spent a long time building with your LEGOs this afternoon. I loved how nicely you were sharing LEGOs with your brother and including him in what you were doing." I may not be getting that exactly right, but the gist was to be very generous and very specific when noticing behaviors you want to continue (and doing your best to COMPLETELY IGNORE behaviors you want to cease). There were even some examples that were surprisingly weak on the positivity scale, but still worth calling out. For example: "I noticed that you thought about hitting your sister just then, but you didn't. I know that was hard and I'm proud of you for asking for help instead." The book focused quite a bit on how we often give energy and time and voice to all of the negative behaviors and not enough to the neutral or just barely positive ones, and that we need to flip the script. I've never read Love & Logic but I have heard very good things.
It's so true that we give so much voice and energy to the negative behaviors - and it's so hard, as a parent, to get out of that. Especially when kids are being kids and are constantly getting into something. I'm in a particularly negative state with my kiddos right now and realize that I'm not seeing or calling out the positive nearly enough.
With Leif, though, I think it's important to do the noticing later. I've realized that if I say something kind or thoughtful or while he is doing something, he immediately changes tack and starts acting in the opposite way. So the end-of-day thing is working for us right now.