I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions.
They’re often so unrealistic – like losing 50 pounds – that we have to quickly abandon them. Then we feel like a failure.
But this year, I have a resolution I think I can keep. Why? Because it’s for the benefit of my 11-year-old son, not me.
My goal is to compliment Connor daily – and not just once or twice, but multiple times. I’m not talking about gratuitous, meaningless compliments. I’m talking about looking hard for significant things Connor has done right – and praising him.
Let me explain the background of my resolution. Late last school, Connor was having some behavior and academic problems at school. In short, he was being disrespectful with teachers and not completing his work.
Neither I nor his school planned to tolerate his belligerent attitude. So, over the summer, Connor and I started going to a counselor.
He wasn’t the typical youth therapist. He didn’t start out the session by asking Connor, “How do you feel today?” He didn’t try to figure out what was bothering him and then boost his self-esteem. I’d tried that feel-good approach with another therapist, and it failed miserably.
This guy was like a Marine drill sergeant. His approach was to tell his recruit (Connor) how to act, not ask his opinion of the rules. But he didn’t coddle me either.
In fact, the counselor – let’s call him Dr. Shaw – was probably tougher on me than on Connor. That’s right.
My parenting mistakes
He got on me for not enforcing a rigid bedtime (guilty), not making Connor get ready by himself in the mornings (guilty), and allowing him to spend too much time playing video games (guilty).
Dr. Shaw also gave me several homework assignments to change my behavior. His view: Improve my parenting methods, and Connor’s behavior would improve.
Dr. Shaw told me to get an empty jug and a bag of marbles. Every time I complimented Connor, I dropped a marble into the jug. At the end of the day, the jug should contain 20 marbles. Then I was supposed to empty the jar and start anew the next day, depositing 20 marbles.
“What? I asked. “Twenty compliments a day?”
“Yes,” he replied. “At least.”
I thought he was crazy, but I tried it anyway. The first few days, it was difficult to find 20 actions Connor took that merited a compliment.
The problem: I wasn’t looking hard enough. The marble assignment showed that I made far more critical comments to Connor than positive ones.
I don’t think I’m a terrible father. I don’t yell at Connor or belittle him, but I noticed how often I would say things like:
“Get up, we’re going to be late for school.”
“Don’t leave your shoes on the stairs.”
“Put your dishes in the sink.”
“Why didn’t you take out the trash?”
“You should have already finished your homework by now.”
See what I mean? None of these comments, by themselves, are out of line. But when Connor (or any child) hears correction over and over – without enough praise – his behavior will likely get worse.
The marble jar is here to stay
Now, the marble jar in the kitchen is a constant reminder than I need to look for reasons to compliment Connor. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his behavior and academic performance are far better this year than last.
I see my job now as praising Connor first, correcting him second. Some examples:
“Thanks for getting up on time.”
“You did a good job on your chores this week.”
“You’re getting your homework done earlier, aren’t you?”
“Thanks for putting your dirty clothes in the hamper.”
“You cleaned up your room – good job.”
I haven’t gone soft on Connor. I’ve simply opened my eyes to see his positive behavior, not just his negative.
The bag of marbles cost me $2. The plastic jug cost me nothing. I already had it.
So for a tiny investment, I have a valuable visual aid for parenting. I plan to keep it on the kitchen counter as long as Connor lives at home. I’ve learned I need it.
Our job as parents is to correct and praise. It’s almost impossible to give too much praise, but it’s easy to give too much criticism.