Sunday, April 22, 2012

extemporaneous - use your words

For all parents there are times when our children reduce us to the worst versions of ourselves. It seems my worst self resembles Biff from Back to the Future. My only defense for calling my son a “butthead” is that it stopped me from saying something worse.

When I pondered this month’s theme, parenting highs and lows, every example that came to mind involved my use of words. I guess that’s appropriate for a lexophile—though you’d think with words as my stock in trade, I might have chosen a better retort than “butthead” to my son’s combative behavior.

The thing is, words spoken—as opposed to words written—can’t be edited. I want my children to grasp this, to consider their words before loosing their tongues. My son’s propensity for arguing is the very behavior that inspired my Biff impression. In essence, I used immature language to censure his immature use of language. Thankfully, the verbal communication menu includes an apology section, from which my kids and I select frequently.

Despite my juvenile example, both of my kids have recently caught me off guard with their conscientious use of words. In particular, they have somehow learned to ask for what they need with neither a sense of entitlement nor shame. Jack demonstrated this in the same way he does most things: visibly and memorably. In a one-on-one talk about a recurring playground conflict, Jack told me he needed help identifying appropriate ways to handle his frustration. Because his principal is a former school counselor, I suggested we meet with him to inquire about resources. I should know by now what happens when you give Jack a seed. (There’s a fairy tale about it, for goodness’ sake.) Nevertheless, I was surprised when the current school counselor called to tell me Jack had walked into the principal’s office at the start of recess and said, “Mr. C___, I need to talk to someone about my anger issues.” Thanks to his straightforward request, the counselor began offering a weekly anger management workshop, which Jack proudly attends.

I almost overlooked, or even rebuked Signe’s recent expression of her needs. We’ve been working with her to respond agreeably when it’s time to clean her room, instead of going into hysterics like a female witness on Perry Mason. Not long ago, Signe simply said “okay” when I announced clean-up time. I agree in theory that we should catch our kids “doing good,” but I failed to offer positive reinforcement and was annoyed when Signe said, “Mommy, what do you say?” “What do you mean, Signe?” I asked, though I was pretty sure I knew the answer. “What do you say to me for not whining?”

Pause with me here. You may be thinking, as I did, that asking for thanks was audacious. A child should be expected to take responsibility for her possessions—which her parents have provided—and to reply respectfully to a parent’s request. You may believe I should have told her as much, and I almost did. Gladly, in the split second before I launched into an oration, I remembered something about my daughter: She’s very much like me in her need for verbal feedback. Now I’ve read Nurture Shock and I know that praising a child can backfire, but there’s a difference between false praise and genuine appreciation, between a fragile ego and a sense of confidence in one’s growth. Signe had just made a conscious decision that required some effort. She had behaved agreeably where she’d previously melted down, and she needed me to acknowledge as much. The fact that I did so is, for me, both a high point and an occasion of grace.

extemporaneous - spoken or performed without advance preparation

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely love your conclusion at the end, and the insight you were able to find in Signe's response to you.