Monday, February 9, 2015

The Power of the Positive

Last Friday, Matt was out of town and I was alone with both boys. I ordered dinner via Favor, which is my new favorite way to "make a clearing" and reduce the stress in my life. (Full Disclaimer: My brother-in-law works for favor, but my affinity for them is completely objective!)

Right when the delivery arrived, Henry came running out of the restroom. He had nothing but a shirt on, and he was exclaiming, "Mama! I have poop on my foot!" 

The details of how that happened are not relevant to my point, so I'll spare you the gory details....

Anyway, as I was helping Henry clean up the mess, he asked, "Are you going to be mad about it, Mama?" I assured him that I wasn't going to be mad at all, but his comment left me wondering: Why is it that Henry would even think I would get mad? 

I work really hard not to get mad when Henry spills water all over the floor, breaks a glass, or drops food. I remain calm and help him figure out how to clean it up. 

But there are lots of other times when Henry probably feels me getting mad at him: when he's taking forever to climb into his car seat because he's messing around with anything and everything in the car; when he hurts Tate or an animal or a plant; when he won't do something I'm asking him to do, such as brush his teeth. 

And it connected to something that his teacher said at our last parent conference. She explained that she thinks that Henry sometimes makes bad choices because he sees himself as a person who makes bad choices. 

Is this partly because I make it so clear (so often) when he is making a bad choice? Do I make him feel like a person who makes bad choices? 

And--on the other side of things--how often does he feel like he's making good choices? That he's a person who makes good choices? 

I spent the rest of the night trying to point out the positive. "Henry, remember earlier when you held open the door for me at school? That made me feel so good! You are such a kind person!" "Henry, you asked Tate for his necklace so nicely! And you said 'thank you' when he gave it to you! You are so kind." 

And our night was amazing. Even though it was only one night, it was enough to inspire me to pay more attention (again) to the ratio of my positive to negative interactions with Henry. I'm definitely going to have negative interactions with him. I'm going to have to tell him that there's not time to make applesauce before bed and that I didn't like it when he ripped the leaf off the plant. But even those things I can convey as positively as possible. And I can overshadow those negative interactions with a ton of positive ones. I've heard that the ideal ratio of positive to negative is 4:1. 

And what would happen if I would transfer this concept into the rest of my life? What if I pushed four positive thoughts into my head for every negative thought? 

I'm feeling pulled to do some real self-work. When I was living on my own in my early and mid-twenties, I used to read a lot of self-help books and loved how they pushed me to be a better person. Marriage, homeownership, motherhood, and my career seem to have de-priortized the intentional time I used to set aside to help myself grow as a person. Of course all of those things also help me grow as a person, but I see real value in setting aside separate time for introspection. 

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Avila said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. My toddler is just becoming verbal so I'm bracing myself for this kind of feedback! I hope I can approach it as constructively as you do.
I hope you don't mind an observation from a stranger who knows you only from reading your blog. for me, one of the most helpful tools for growing my self-knowledge has been the enneagram. I remember this was mentioned some time ago; I may have suggested you may be a type one (or did I just think it?) Of course, truly you are the only one who can identify your own type as its about your motivation. However your story is a very familiar one for type ones. They tend towards giving negative feedback to others because they tend to be very critical of themselves, and are always conscious of their need for improvement. This can lead them towards great integrity (Gandhi was probably a one) but it can also be exhausting for them and their loved ones. Ask my husband! I have a strong one "wing".
The path to integration for ones consists not so much of more self-improvement as it does of learning to let themselves be; coming to truly believe that they are worthy regardless of how good they are, and that they are loved in their imperfection. They can then approach others in the same way.
if none of this resonates feel free to ignore me. Maybe I'm projecting! I guess recognising these dynamics in me has been really powerful (and hard!) so I thought I'd offer them to you, FWIW.

hpagola said...

Hello. Thanks for sharing your inner thoughts with all of us. For the most part, I find you to be very inspirational; sometimes I wonder if you are superwoman with everything that you do. Wanted to say hi and tell you that although i rarely leave a comment, I do follow your blog and learn so much from it. And lastly, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!! Hope you treat yourself to something relaxing and wonderful. Helena

Anonymous said...

Such an insightful post for me today. We live in a housebus, and at the moment everyone seems entirely sick of everyone else - a reminder to pay attention to the ratio of positive/ negative feedback is exactly the insight I need to help our wonderful family back to a place of balance. Thank you!

Sara E. Cotner said...

How funny that you mention the Enneagram, Avila! My Unitarian Universalist church offers a class about it, and I thought about going. It's been years since I took/thought about that test. I just took it again, and I was a strong 1!

I appreciate your perspective so much. In classic 1 style, I'm going to do some work around this!

Hi, Helen! It's so great to hear from you! I think about your sweet boy often. Thanks for chiming in!

beneg said...

Sara, I love your blog so much! This is such a lovely post about self awareness and reflexivity! Your home is beautiful too :)

Anonymous said...

One of the things that I've tried to start with my little guy is praising in different ways for different things. Things that are skill based: like coloring, "Oh you did such a good job coloring." Where as things that are personality based I praise that attribute: "Thank you so much for being a good helper/listener" When I critique I talk about the negative of the virtue. "That was not nice"

I'm not sure how well it's working yet. My kiddo is only 1.5 years. But I thought that this spoke to how Henry is internalizing his critiques.

Avila said...

In classic 2 style, Sara, I'm so glad that I helped!

I hope you get a lot out of the workshop - how serendipitous! It would be great to hear what you learn.

Katie Mae said...

Hi Sara! I love your parenting posts and I admire your commitment to introspection and growth. :D

I think you've mentioned Carol Dweck before, but I just wanted to throw this article into the conversation: 'Fixed mindset' compliments like "you're so kind" can create a fear of accidentally straying from the identity you are promoting.

In my personal experience, my parents were really enthusiastic about praising me as a kid, but as a result I'm still not totally comfortable with making mistakes as an adult, because I (usually sub-conciously) fear not living up to the traits that were ascribed to me.

Dweck's book Mindset goes into much more detail. It's a great read.

Sara E. Cotner said...

Hi, Katie Mae!

I've read Mindset and love the theory. I absolutely positively reinforce effort instead of innate intelligence.

However, I read an article that says character is different. It said we should positively reinforce children for being someone who embodies a particular characteristic (like kindness or generosity) rather than praising the action. In other words, we should say, "You are a kind person" rather than "It was kind when you shared your juice."

So I use implement both these strategies! I praise effort instead of intelligence but then I praise Henry for being a kind, generous, caring person.

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