We are in the midst of Award Season. Media is touting favorites and making predictions for the Oscars, Emmys, etc.. The buzz is a pleasant distraction from more serious contemporary issues. Americans love winners, especially those “underdogs” who overcome stacked odds and manage to succeed. While we enjoy this entertaining diversion, as parents, we remain focused on a far more important win: raising healthy, happy, and productive children.

Let’s face it, parenting is not for sissies. It demands patience, compassion, persistence, and lots and lots of love. Sometimes we ourselves are the ones who most need acknowledgment and understanding from us. Yes, we want to hold ourselves to high standards. We also want to admit that we are human, make mistakes, feel tired, lose patience, and make less-than-stellar choices.

It is important to be scrupulous in the assessment of our behavior, decisions, words, silences, actions, and inactions. We must also forgive ourselves for any shortcomings and then insist on making the appropriate accountability, forge the repair, and resolve to do better. Apologizing to our children when we mess up is an important part of sustaining our relationship. It also provides a vital blueprint for our kids to follow in their own interactions with family, friends, teachers, etc.

By admitting our personal missteps, we demonstrate integrity. If we are willing to own our mistakes our children will be on the receiving end of that integrity. They will experience how good it feels when someone who has wronged them apologizes to them. This, in turn, helps them learn how to make a genuine apology which is a critical life skill.

The flip side of recognizing the need for an apology is the ability to know when it is appropriate to offer acknowledgment of sincere effort. Our attention is the currency of connection. When our spouses, family members, and colleagues strive to improve their actions within the context of our mutual relationship and we notice and verbalize this spoken noticing affirms and encourages our connection with them. Any positive change, regardless of how small is still a step in the right direction. Like a tiny seedling just breaking through the soil, this change needs nurturing and encouragement. Without attention, it will wither and die. It is both wise and compassionate to be generous with our encouragement!

Our expectations serve as primary filters of what we “allow” ourselves to see. Remember the book series Where’s Waldo? Each page overflowed with tiny images. Until the reader concentrated on finding dear old Waldo, he remained hidden in the cluttered imagery. Once we decided to look for Waldo, almost magically, his image emerged from the chaos.

When we engage with our children what behavior grabs our attention? How is what we see influenced by our expectations? Are we assuming Tommy is going to misbehave because he has in the past? Are we basing our mental picture on an old “box” which we have not updated to reflect his effort and any behavioral changes he has demonstrated? Have we wiped the board clean and opened ourselves to the possibility that he will have better control over his behavior–even if only slightly more? If he does make an improvement, do we take obvious note of that change and acknowledge him for it? Or, do we focus on his failure to fully meet our standards yet again?

Which response is more likely to encourage him to continue to improve? Which response is more likely to convince him it is not worth the effort? Certainly, we must love, educate, and discipline our children. We must not break their spirit or their hearts in the process. Their childhood is spent riding a steep learning curve of both social and school mores and standards. They experience far more failure than success because success is a process build on stepping stones of failure that inch them closer to mastery. Sustaining their persistence and confidence is essential. Encourage their efforts, notice their progress and nurture their belief that life is a Learning Conversation.

If we imagine ourselves in their shoes, i.e., on the receiving end of a steady stream of criticism and feedback that focused more on what we did wrong than on what we did right we develop an empathy for them. Whether a chronic negative feedback loop happens at work, between partners, or friends this tilt to a negative focus is disheartening at best and toxic at its worst. Like a hug from a porcupine, regardless of his positive intent, the experience prickles with discomfort. Understandably, the decision to bail, zone out, or give up would be mighty tempting.

To counteract this need to escape a pervasive sense of failure, concentrate on what is working, on what change is happening. Focus attention there on the incremental change. This shift will benefit you and them. It will kindle hope which in turn will fuel further change and deeper connection.

Where will you focus your attention this week? How will you adjust the setting of your personal “lens” so that it will shift what you see?


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Read these book reviews by GIFT coach, Gayle H. Swift. They are written with an Adoption-attuned perspective.