Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A lesson in liberation.

I recently read (and re-read) a book that I would strongly recommend for any parent looking for a new approach to some of the universal challenges we face raising children. It's a little cheesy and out of date but if you can see past all of that, you will find a whole new set of tools at your disposal.

The book is called Liberated Parents, Liberated Children: Your Guide to a Happier Family and was written by the same authors who wrote How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (next up on my reading list).

I am so curious what other modern moms and dads will think about this book. Please read it and let me know! Perhaps we could start some sort of liberated parents support group/book club? Or maybe you'll think it's complete hogwash and never want to speak to me again. Either way, I'm dying to know.

Part of me wants to dissect the entire book for you (and for me) but I think I'll spare us all the book report and just give you an example of one of the lessons I'm working on.

Words that evaluate, hinder a child. Words that describe, set him free.

Did you know there is a right and a wrong way to praise a kid? No? Me neither. It seemed to me that the more atta boys I could throw at Liam, the better:

Great job!
I'm so proud of you!
You're such a good boy!
Wow, that's awesome!
I love it!
You're so smart!
What a handsome kid!

I think it's the cheerleader in me. I just can't stop shaking those darn pompoms!

When I read that open praise like this is maybe not such a good thing for a growing child after all, it completely threw me for a loop. For starters, it made me realize that I say things like this a lot. And not always with a whole lot of meaning attached. I caught myself responding to something Liam said the other day with, "Cool, Buddy! That's great!" but honestly - I didn't even hear him. If I'm throwing around praise for nothing (he may have said, "I hit the dog and pooped my pants!" for all I know), it makes what I say completely meaningless. Next time I really do praise him for something, how is he supposed to know if I'm being sincere or just blowing him off?

Descriptive praise, on the other hand, is completely different. Instead of passing judgment on a child's character ("You're a great artist! What a beautiful painting!"), you give an appreciative description of his actions ("Look at all the colors you used! You created so many different shapes.") and stop there. This is really hard. I can't count the number of times I've said something like, "I see you put your shoes away..." and then without being able to stop myself added a quick, "Great job!" But when I do manage to describe and back away, a pretty amazing thing happens. Liam feels proud of himself.

I'm so proud of you for getting dressed all by yourself!
You're so handsome!
It looks like you're all dressed and ready to go!

In the short term, it's adorable. He's more willing to try new things and seems genuinely confident most of the time. He has a totally new sense of autonomy and a great need for independence. He isn't as shaken by mistakes (or the possibility of mistakes) as he used to be and meets challenges with this excitement I've never seen before.

Vacuuming up the cat food he spilled when he FED THE CATS.

...without being asked.
(Good for Liam, probably not so good for the 17 pound cat.)

In the long term, he will hopefully know that he doesn't need to depend on others to tell him who he is, what he can do, or how well he can do it. He will have pride and confidence that comes from within and will not feel trapped by roles I have inadvertently stuck him in (You're always so good and smart and handsome! - Gee, thanks mom. No pressure or anything...).

Liam: I was making a snack and spilled some chocolate chips.
Me: You were doing it yourself?
Liam: Yes I was. Don't worry, Mama - I'll clean it up!

Me: (Head explodes from shock and awe.)

This sort of holding back when speaking is a key component to all the lessons in the book. Whenever possible, replace a paragraph with a sentence, a sentence with a word, a word with a gesture. For example:

When my sister was in town I told Liam we were going to leave the house in about 10 minutes to go to a restaurant for breakfast. He semi-freaked out and said he didn't want to go and stomped his feet and cried and refused to get dressed. In the past I would have bribed him, threatened him, sweet talked him, tricked him, gotten mad at him, put him in time out - you name it. Instead, I said, "It looks like you really don't want to go! You must be very comfy in your pajamas. But you can't wear pajamas to the restaurant and we'll be leaving very soon." Then I went back to what I was doing and left him alone to work it out. The whole time I was thinking Yeah right, like this is going to work. But the thing is - it did work. When I refused to engage in a battle and simply left him alone to work out a solution, he totally rose to the occasion.

Of course, as with anything, these lessons will take some time before they really become a part of me. Take this morning for example:

We were at our neighbors' house for a play date and Liam and Isabella (5) were in her room playing "Mommy & Daddy" when they decided to change into pajamas (yet another kid who loves to change clothes!). Everything was going swimmingly until I looked up from my conversation to find Liam jumping on the bed in nothing but a pink bathrobe. An untied pink bathrobe. An ohmygod my son is totally butt ass naked in a five year old girl's bedroom and we hardly even know these people! pink bathrobe.

It kind of took my breath away.

I tried my best to approach the situation from a liberated point of view but I couldn't see clearly what with all the unwieldy nakedness. I described the situation (Wow, I see you're totally naked!) and spoke in a very straight forward way (We need to find your shorts and walk home now!) but once the tantrum started I was at a complete loss. Liam was screaming and crying and trying to hide from me in Isabella's closet - all the while wearing nothing but a tan line. Really no amount of skillful parenting was going to make a dent in the situation - I just had to get him dressed and get the hell out of there!

Even though the goodbye was somewhat mortifying, the rest of the play date more than made up for it. Liam was like his own little person - social and outgoing, trying new foods and running off to play without me. If he hadn't been prancing around in his birthday suit, I might not have recognized him.



Jill said...

I totally agree. I try to do this stuff too, but it takes a lot of practice. I too thought that lots of praise would "build him up." I'm working on it.

sunT said...

my sister just recommended the "how to talk so kids will listen..." book. she has been a teacher for a really long time and shes an awesome one! hmmm... do you have these books for loan?

Courtney said...

I'll definitely add these books to my reading list! Thanks for the great post! I've been searching for positive parenting books.

bem said...

Along the same lines...Friday I was at my mom's when the boys counselor was there. We were all sitting in the backyard and the boys and counselor were playing football. All we heard was KATHY WATCH ME!! BETH WATCH ME!!! HEY YOUR GUYS WATCH ME...WATCH!!! Later the couselor sat them all down and had a little "self-esteem" talk. They don't need someone to be watching them all the time to see that they can catch a ball. We all know they can catch a ball. They just want the attention so that when one of them misses the ball and the other catches it, he feels better because we saw him catch and the other miss. They need to learn to feel good about themselves when they catch the ball even if no one is watching.

Courtney said...

Got the book on Amazon for a penny! Score!Looking forward to reading!

Celina said...

I see that you're practicing being present in your parenting with Liam, Maggie ;)

I'm in awe of you continuing your education in parenting, Mags.

:) Celina

No Mommy Brain said...

sunshine - yes, you can borrow the books! anyone local is welcome to my used and underlined copies (as soon as bill finishes them, of course). :)