Praise. Compliments. Affirmation.
All good things that parents tend to weigh carefully when building the moral character of their children. Praise him too much, he may become entitled. Praise her too little, she may develop a low self-image.
The Truth About Affirmation
But we don’t need to fear affirmation. Just think of it as a sweet ingredient like sugar. Without it, the recipe would be bland. Families of faith should be encouraged that God made sweet words to be sweet to our ears and our hearts:
Pleasant words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.
So how do we rightly affirm our children with praise without puffing up their pride? Let’s think first about directing their behavior, and what psychologists refer to as positive affirmation.
It is most powerful to guide a child’s behavior by acknowledging and affirming the behavior that we want to see. If you’ve ever corrected a young child trying to pet an animal, you more than likely helped them stroke a dog or cat’s fur softly and said, “Nicely… softly… gently.” Looking at them and smiling while they do the right thing is positive affirmation.
When kids get older, they still need your positive words to point them in the right direction. But often, we get caught up in directing behavior and tend to forget about how much they need our kind words to reinforce their own good choices.
Words of appreciation, thankfulness, and noticing their initiative without our direction are sweet to their soul! Do they still need correction? Of course, but a positive, non-judgmental tone will go much further than negative words like don’t, should, you better… or the ever-incriminating…what were you thinking?! (ask me how I know).
Affirmation By Sharing the Love
Among our favorite holidays to celebrate is Valentine’s Day, and what better time of year to practice affirmation than on a day dedicated to loving each other?
I started this tradition a couple of years back, and my kids look forward to it every year. Although, I have to give credit to my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Kirkner (may she rest in peace), who taught us about the postal delivery service by having us make mailboxes out of cardboard or leftover cereal containers.
Here is where we begin, parents… use what you have, keep it simple, and focus on the affirmation:
1. Begin with the transformation of an empty cardboard box (I used this applesauce container). Find some cute scrapbook paper at the craft store, or just use construction paper to cover the box.
(Part of this process was also to model how they could use their own art supplies and recycled materials – wink wink)
2. I saw their primary journal. I thought, “How cool would it be for them to wake up or come home from school to “love notes” from Mommy to get them into the season?” I can only draw stick figures, so I went with that and added a bit of color.
3. Focus on expressing one attribute, quality, or action you appreciate about them or want to see more in their character while modeling the kind of lettering they practice on the dotted lines.
4. Fold each note and put it in an envelope labeled with their name. Every few days during the month of February, they can discover a new note in their box.
For my kids, it may as well have been Christmas morning based on how excited they were to rip open the envelopes. I spread out the delivery frequency on purpose so it didn’t get old too quickly.
Affirmation Beyond the Note
What started out as a fun idea developed into so much more. These are the beautiful heart moments I witnessed out of such a simple task:
Words of Affirmation
I set out to write encouraging notes to my kids, to focus on one thing at a time that I had observed recently in their personality, abilities, new hobbies, and things they were interested in. I tried to express appreciation for the little person they were in that moment, not necessarily who I wanted them to be. Their faces LIT UP. Not only did they feel extra special for getting “mail” personalized to them, but they got to see on paper exactly what their Mama saw in them.
This is why I drew a picture. Kids still think very concretely about things; they’re learning about how the world works. When I try to explain abstract concepts like character in action and integrity, it seems to absorb much better with a concrete, pictorial answer.
This part actually intimidated me at first because I’m not very artistic (maybe you can relate). I began to put pressure on myself to communicate all my feelings in one picture. “Stop, Jenn,” I told myself. “All they need are sticks… they’ll get it.”
And they did. Each time they would open a new envelope, they ran to post it on any blank wall they could find, and the pictures stayed there for a few months. They sat down to breakfast or dinner every day, looked at them, and smiled. They even started talking about the things they do and how they treat people. This visual reminder spurred them forward and reinforced the behavior.
I wanted to reinforce attitudes and actions that Daddy and I wanted to see more of. It’s difficult to teach perseverance and good sportsmanship when they haven’t experienced enough to support their fragile emotions and egos. Last year was the first big push into organized sports and activities, and they often wanted to give up at the beginning. Those scenarios flooded my mind, and I knew I had to draw about them.
The stick figure representation that came from that even surprised me because so many of my own emotions were communicated. The pride I felt for my son when he hit the ball off the tee and the disappointment when my daughter wouldn’t greet me right away after school (she was often upset about not being first in the lunch line, and it ruined her whole day). It was my way of gently nudging them to “see” – to realize how much their attitudes made a difference. I didn’t want to guilt them into loving me, of course, but to be aware of what things look like from another perspective – outside of themselves.
It occurred to me later that while I was modeling creativity and writing, I was also modeling encouragement. It is truly a learned skill to give someone positive affirmation. My marriage has taught me that 100%. We’re not always aware of the things that we need from others until our attitudes begin to reflect the deficit.
With my kids, I began to see harsh reactions to disappointment and disrespect. Instead of coming down hard on them and communicating more disappointment in their attitudes, these notes helped me to reinforce the positive, remind them that I believe the best, and they have more control over themselves than they thought!
I began to see changes in their attitudes immediately. Looking at the love notes every day spurred conversation within our family, their demeanors changed, and I saw them think through their actions based on what they saw on the notes.
They began to live according to what the notes said! Chloe embraced her singing and dance more than ever, and Asher takes time to finish his homework and problem-solve, knowing that I’m proud of him for doing it. His writing has also improved dramatically, and he has since begun creating his own containers from recycled materials and hand-lettering his own projects.
After a few days, Chloe made her own version for me… and then Asher started making them. He made a love note for everyone in our family and even friends in our apartment building. This followed for weeks and weeks, little notes to express how they were feeling.
Asher struggles to get Chloe to play with him, and he wrote her a note about that… “I love when you play Legos with me… it makes me happy.” This went on through the rest of the year. Love notes started to pop up here and there. Asher would hide in his room to write a special note for one of us and it made them especially happy when we posted them in a prominent place in the house or by our desks. They even started mailing them to grandparents on the mainland.
The Lunch Box Love Note
One day, I decided to write just a quick note to put in their lunch box. That evening I discovered that Asher had forgotten to empty his bag, and I opened the box to find a soggy wet note! What it said was, “My Precious Man, I hope you have a wonderful day at school. I love you very much, and I believe in you. Love Mom.”
He was already asleep and I was about to throw it away and ask him in the morning what he thought about it. But I turned it over and saw that he had actually written back to me:
Translated: “Dear Mommy, I never had a paper in my lunch box, but this is my first time having one. This is the best day ever.”
How can you sew seeds of appreciation, gratitude, and affirmation in the heart of your child? Maybe in the heart of your spouse? Could you start a family mailbox today? With the holidays coming up and the season of love upon us, what better time?
Share your love this Valentine’s Day by showing your favorite people that you see and appreciate them. Make your own simple mailbox today!
Check out our Practical Family Etsy Store and download our digital Valentines to share the love with your family.