Episode #3 of the course Parenting skills to raise responsible, mature children by Roger K. Allen, PhD
Today, I’m going to introduce the skill of affirming your children and give you an opportunity to apply this skill in your parenting.
Our children crave positive attention and affection. Affirming is one way we provide it. I define affirming as communicating love, goodwill, and confidence to children in ways that: 1) shape desired behaviors and 2) help them feel good about themselves. The communication is not necessarily verbal. It includes touching, hugging, and smiling.
Children who are affirmed in the home are much less likely to turn to undesirable ways of meeting their needs outside the family, such as through inappropriate intimacy with a girlfriend or boyfriend.
One way we affirm is through affection, smiles, and physical touch in the form of hugs, back/head rubs, an arm around the shoulder, a kiss on the cheek, or reaching out and touching a hand, arm, or shoulder. Such affection is enormously affirming. Furthermore, children don’t outgrow this need as they grow older, although they may feel more vulnerable and unable to ask. They may also resist it when trust is low and conflict high.
Another way we affirm is through kind words or affirmations. These are simple, age-appropriate phrases that build kids up and help them feel good about themselves. Imagine whispering in the ear of a two-year-old, “I love your smile,” “I’m so lucky to be your mommy,” or, “It is so fun holding you in my lap.”
You wouldn’t say the same things to a teenager. It may sound more like: “I love how you do your hair,” “It’s okay to have your feelings,” or, “It took a great deal of courage for you to stick up for your friend.” These are not superficial statements. They require that we “tune in” to our children/teens to know them and understand their world.
Affirming includes being aware of positive behaviors and then commenting on them—not every time but intermittently: “I appreciate you helping your younger brother get ready for school. It helped us have a much calmer morning”; “This kitchen is looking so good. I know you worked hard on it”; or, “I noticed you got right to your homework tonight. That shows lots of initiative.”
Positive reinforcement, affirming desired behaviors, will do far more to instill appropriate behavior than criticizing or scolding children when they exhibit undesirable behavior.
Affirming may be a compliment or praise about what someone has done, but it is also recognizing their way of being—the way they have expressed their inner strengths or values through actions they have taken. “I respect your tenacity and courage to continue seeking what is really important to you.”
This skill is sometimes used when a child doubts their own abilities, and we let them know we believe in their strengths, abilities, and resourcefulness. Through our affirmations, we empower our children to stand tall and keep growing in meaningful ways.
Notice that the examples above are about a child’s effort, actions, and character. Saying, “You’re really smart,” is not helpful. But saying, “I love how hard you’re working on your homework,” is helpful. In fact, here are a few steps to make affirming meaningful:
1. Provide it immediately. The closer the affirmation occurs to the behavior we want to reinforce, the greater the impact and the more motivating it will be.
2. Make it specific. Specific feedback is more powerful than global feedback. “I love that you fed the dog right on time tonight,” is far more effective than saying, “You take such good care of our dog.”
3. Speak enthusiastically. We need our children to know that we mean it. This is not faint praise, but something we really appreciate.
4. Include touch. A touch, perhaps on a hand or shoulder, reinforces the message. The extent of the touch depends on the receptivity of the child. But as stated earlier, most of our children crave physical contact and affection.
So, now it’s your turn. Think about at least one way you can affirm one of your children. Or watch your children next time you’re with them. Identify a positive behavior and comment on it, using the four steps above.
In the next lesson, I’m going to talk about another skill to help our children grow in self-worth and confidence: listening.
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