Last month I ran a wonderful guest post from Amy at Anktangle about "Being 'good,'" on not using the adjective "good" to describe our babies' behavior, and there was an interesting conversation in the comments that stuck with me and made me think about the topic further.
Please note when I'm quoting a commenter in the following, I'm not disagreeing with or arguing against her (I'm actually specifically not quoting anyone I disagreed with — heh heh); it's just something that made me think.
"You didn't say this, but some people are afraid to call their children 'good' at all. It bothers me. Children are good people, and I think it's important to tell them that. I believe that when I randomly tell my son that he's a good boy, he'll ingrain it as a part of my unconditional acceptance of him, and that if anyone ever tells him otherwise, he'll at least know that his mother sees him as good. But, agreed, it shouldn't be used to describe them based on whether or not someone likes their behavior." — Lisa C of My World Edenwild
Here was my muddled response at the time:
"I like the idea of randomly saying that a child is good, not attached to behavior. Because, yes, I do believe every child is good. I know my parents used to say it to me every once in awhile, and it made me feel happy, though I'm sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was a very easy and obedient kid. I wonder if I can steel myself to say it when he's not behaving in a way commonly accepted as 'good.'"
I don't know if you can hear my ambivalence in there, because as I thought back to times my parents had randomly declared to me, "You're a good kid, you know that?" I remembered the glow — but now, as an adult, I can also analyze their remark further to realize there was something more behind it than simple love. It was a mark of approval.
By labeling me a "good kid," they were saying, in my mind at least, that I was compliant, quiet, accomplished in school, and so forth. I don't think my parents meant when they said, "You're such a good kid," some twisted ulterior subtext of "We love you because you make life convenient for us, and we wouldn't love you if you didn't" — but I fully knew, even as a child, that my label as "good" was due to my overall pleasant behavior and temperament. If asked, I could have gleefully pointed to several "bad" kids I knew, again based on behavior.
So I wondered how to apply Lisa's general principle — that, yes, kids are good and should know it, regardless of behavior — but use the right words to convey that message specifically rather than the behaviorally based "good."
Well, lo and behold, Kelly Hogaboom forwarded me a link to a series in Life Learning Magazine by Naomi Aldort on the topic, and Part 3 (the beginning of which is online) explained it all for me: my ambivalence, and what to say instead.
A reader asks if she should give her child general praise, such as "You are wonderful." Naomi says this:
"Love is the water of the human soul; evaluation is not. One of the ways love shows up for the child is through the experience of knowing that her life makes a difference and touches the people she loves. Ask yourself what touches your heart, when someone says to you, 'you are great' (evaluation) or when she says, 'Being with you, I feel inspired.' It is the emotional connection that matters to us the most.
Use private moments to share whatever is present and real for you at the moment; a smile, a hug, an action and/or words. Instead of vague evaluative words, share how you feel and how your child’s presence moves you. While taking a walk together you can say, 'I feel excited walking with you;' while helping your child wash his hair, 'I love washing your hair, I feel so close to you and that is so important to me;' giving full attention, one-on-one, is one of the loudest ways to express love and recognition of your child’s importance in your life." [emphases mine]
So, to rework my parents' statement, I just have to look to other times they said something less evaluative, like, "I'm so glad we're in this family together," or, simply, "I really love you."
I think Naomi's suggestions relate to the link I shared last Sunday Surf, too, from this woman's work — "On needing to be seen," which contains this dialogue:
“Hey David!” Amy called. “Look at you! You have brand new shoes!”
David stopped, looking down at his shoes as if he’d forgotten that he was wearing them.
“I got them last night,” he said. “My mommy took me after school.”
“They are certainly bright blue shoes!” Amy said.
David grinned then skipped off sunnier than he had been before.
“There you go,” Amy said to me. “He just wants to be seen.”
[emphasis mine again, and I didn't redo all the quote marks right because I couldn't be bothered…]
Telling your children, "I had such a fun time laughing with you under the covers while we were hiding from Daddy today" or "I would love to bake cookies with you" is a way of seeing your kids in the moment and expressing your own joy at their existence, in a way that's not dependent on their behavior or seeking to control the way they behave.
I don't know that there's a way to rid myself of all evaluative statements. I know, for instance, that I tend to get pretty impressed when Mikko spells a word correctly or sings a song all the way through, and by expressing my appreciation for his feat, I'm also inserting some measure of approval of that particular task, which subtly suggests that he continue walking down that path rather than another. And then often that backfires: A sure way to get a kid to stop singing is to tell him how much you like his singing! I know I'm doing it but find it hard to stop.
I don't want to be so terrified of saying the wrong thing, though, that I can't speak to my child at all, or only in the most stilted fashion. The best I can do for now is be more aware of it, and look for ways to turn evaluative statements into simple love. That might mean saying nothing at all and letting him find his own joy, his own evaluation, and simply give him my presence.
Even deeper than that, I need to dig within myself and learn to appreciate people, including my kids, for who they are, not what they can do, or how they please me. Then I suppose the sincere appreciation will ring out, without my needing to think about it all so hard.
It strikes me that Lisa C. is probably sincere like that in what she says, and means exactly "You're a good kid," without anything else behind it; I know my own tangled thoughts and motives too well to think I can say such a thing spontaneously and mean it in the right way. When I think about the people who express exuberant appreciation like that to me, I think of a few good friends (including Sam) who like me unconditionally and have never distanced themselves from me due to my bad behavior or tried in some didactic fashion to shape me more to their liking.
I think it's probably easier with adults to be accepting of who they are, because we expect adults to be stuck in their ways. With children — especially our own children — we think we have the right and responsibility to mold them to be who they were meant to be. But, the thing is, they already are who they are, and it's pretty dang good.
I just need to figure out how to tell them so.