“You want me to WHAT!?” they typically ask.
“Praise them! Every time they do something well, I want you to tell them. If they aren’t doing anything, but they’re behaving…praise them. If they’re choosing to use nice words with their sister, praise them. If they are sitting in the chair instead of throwing it, praise them. If they’re using their inside voice or keeping their shirt on their body or using their walking feet in the hallway, praise them.”
“But…but…that doesn’t even make sense,” they tell me. “My kid is TERRIBLE. He’s a mess. He throws stuff. He bites people. He breaks his sister’s toys. He never sits still. He hits me. He BROKE MY TV SET!”
“I know,” I say, rubbing the place where the kid hit me with a flying toy car. “I know. But just think about all the stuff he hears that he SHOULDN’T be doing. How many sentences do you start with ‘don’t you dare…’ or ‘put that down’ or ‘get back over here’ or ‘stop’ or ‘no’?” Mom and dad look a little sheepish.
“Right,” I say. “He gets a LOT of attention for what he does that you DON’T want him to do. What happens when he does something you DO want him to do?”
“Well, sometimes I say good job!”
“That’s great!” I say. “But do you think that occasionally hearing ‘good job’ is going to be enough for 4 year old Johnny to erase everything else he hears that starts with ‘no,’ ‘don’t,’ or ‘stop’? At first, what you ideally want is 5 positives for every 1 ‘no’ or ‘stop’ you say. That way, your ‘nos’ are going to mean SO much more.” I might have made up the 5:1 ratio, but…shhhhh. It gets my point across.
Ideally, mom and dad walk away and start praising the pants off of little Johnny but, realistically, that never happens. I saw a kiddo the other day whose mother was so negative and was so on top of her with everything she was doing “wrong,” I finally looked at mom and said, “you know…you told her not to stand near the window…not to play too loudly with the toys…not to put the toys on the table…not to put the toys too far under the chair…not to interrupt us…no wonder she’s throwing a tantrum! It’s the only thing left TO do!” Mom sort of laughed, and then told the kid not to sit too close to her because she was hot.
I have a little girl I see who stays on my mind after I see her. This mother is so negative, we have spent 4 weeks on “praise” and haven’t moved anywhere. Thing is, this kid isn’t even bad. I heard her whine once. She has never cried, yelled, screamed, flopped, thrown, bitten, scratched, pinched, hit, kicked, climbed, or pulled anyone’s hair while in session with me.
“I can’t praise her,” mom says. “She’s only good for 5 minutes a day.”
“PERFECT!” I exclaim. “Then we need to make sure we praise those 5 minutes worth of good things. You want her to do more good things, right?”
“That’s why I’m coming to see you,” she says, dully.
“Exactly. The way we can get her to do more good things is by praising the good things she already does. When she learns that THAT is what we want her to do, she’ll want to do it more.”
“But she’s only good for five minutes a day. I don’t want to praise those five minutes, because she should be doing it all the time. I don’t want her to come to expect it. She’s not always going to get praise for brushing her teeth or picking up her toys. Why should I tell her good job?”
And we start again.
“But she’s only good for five minutes, and she’s a bad child the rest of the time. She doesn’t deserve praise.”
And we start again.
“You go to work, right?” I ask mom. “And you get paid for the work you do. If you went to work and didn’t get paid, would you keep going to work?”
Mom looks at me like I sprouted another head.
“Right,” I say. “Your reward for working is getting paid. If I took away your paycheck, you wouldn’t keep working. Kiddo’s reward for doing something good is praise, or a high-five, or a Skittle. If she never gets that, why would she continue being good?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
“So is going to work. But if you aren’t getting paid…”
“But it’s different.”
“You’re right. It is different. It’s different because she’s 3 and you’re 30. Going to your job is your work. Brushing her teeth and listening to adults is her work.”
“But she doesn’t deserve praise.”
And we start again, and again, and again, and I resist the surging desire to take the child home with me so I can praise her and give her high-fives for brushing her teeth, using her walking feet, listening to grown-ups, and talking with an inside voice.
* * * * * * * * * * *
At the end of the day, I sit down on the metro and think, “Well…it’s been 5 weeks and that mom still doesn’t get how to say ‘good job,’ you had 2 typos in your report that you should have caught before you sent it to your supervisor, you should have taught that mom planned ignoring instead of time-out, you forgot to call your client’s social worker, and you didn’t write that kid’s progress note.”
I make lists in my mind of things I need to do when I get home, what I need to do when I go in the next day, and I try to empty my mind of the day’s events as I watch the drug addicts drop chicken all over the train.* Pretty soon, though, the hamster wheel in my head starts going. “Five weeks, and you still can’t get that mother to say ‘nice work’ to her kid! FIVE WEEKS! And really? Why did you think planned ignoring was going to work for that behavior? Your supervisor is going to roll his eyes when he reads that note. I mean seriously. And that social worker is waiting for your call. Why didn’t you remember to call them back? It was on your to-do list! Two typos? Really…I mean, how embarrassing was it that you wrote “ting” instead of “thing” and your supervisor had to bring it up and laugh about it. It’s called PROOFREADING! Hell-loooooo!?”**
And then I start again.
“Five weeks?! Really!?!”
The other day, I was coming home from work, starting the usual dialogue, when suddenly I stopped.
“You talked to 4 parents today about praising their child’s good behavior. Where’s the praise? Where’s the 5:1 ratio? What did you do well today, huh, HUH!?!”
The small, critical voice inside me is hard to shut up, so it whispers, “Well, you didn't call that kid's social worker, that's for damn sure."
“GOOD THINGS,” I yell at the small, critical voice.
“Oh right,” it says, “I suck at coming up with good things. There's so little to choose from.
And then, I start again.
“Well…”I think, slowing myself down, thinking purposefully and using planned ignoring on my small critical voice. “Well…”
Seeing an opening, she jumps in again. “We both KNOW you didn’t proofread your reports OR your progress notes now did you?”
“I swear to God if you don’t come up with one good thing you did today…”“Good thing? Well, your intervention with that one client sure doesn’t fall in THAT category…”
“FIND SOMETHING GOOD TO SAY,” I exclaim (to myself), impatiently.
“Why should I find something good to say,” asks that critical voice, which doesn’t actually seem so small anymore, “when you only do so many ‘good things’ per day, compared with all those things you did wrong?” Tomorrow, I think, tomorrow I will start again.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Remember to praise your beautiful self for everything you did today. For the ways you touched the lives of others, and the ways you let others touch your life. For the ways you shared yourself with others and the ways you protected yourself. For listening to yourself and the world. Congratulate yourself for making it through another day, for breathing through the moments of stress and frustration, for acknowledging your small critical voice. Thank yourself for moving you through the day and for engaging in the world again and again. Give yourself a high-five for taking five minutes for you, or for giving five minutes to someone else. If all else fails, take a breath, smile, and tell yourself “thank you” for brushing your teeth, for cleaning up your toys, for using your walking feet.
*Long story for another time...but the gist is that there was a dude, clearly strung out on something, who was eating fried chicken on the train until he passed out, nearly fed a baby a chicken bone, and dropped a chicken bone down a lady’s shirt. Just another day in the life...
**This may be a slight dramatization of my actual internal dialogue. I don’t actually talk to myself like this. I’m typically less animated and sarcastic, for one…but you don’t really want to hear how I talk to myself. It’s a scary thing.