October 1, 2015 12:02 am The Gift
Now that school has started, children will frequently be bringing home papers, drawings, craft projects and things they have collected that they want to share with their parents. Behind each of these offerings is a message. Often, however, our parental response fails to take into account the subtleties of the messages children are trying to convey. Too often we respond with a stock phrase such as “Good job!” or “It’s beautiful!” without really considering why the child is showing us his offering or what the response we give is communicating.
I would like to explore with you some of the very different messages a child may be sending when he shares a product of his day away from you. Depending on the child’s intent, some of our responses may facilitate his growth and some may frustrate him and trap him in an unhealthy dependency. Imagine your child pulling from his backpack his math test (if he is older) or a picture that he has obviously spent some time on, or perhaps a bouquet of wilted dandelions. The fact that he is offering this to you means that he is hoping for some sort of response, but what is he saying and what is he hoping for?
A few possibilities:
- “This is the product of my effort. Is it good? (I need your approval before I can “own it” and before I can feel proud of myself.)” This is the classic case in which “Good job!” is exactly what he is looking for. But take note that implied in both his intention and your response is the assumption that you, the parent, are the authority. You have the knowledge and the right to judge things as good and bad and you want him to see the world in those terms.
- Similar but slightly different: “I need to know I am loved and the only way I know to prove this to myself is to do something that elicits your praise.” What is implied here? Not only the assumption that the parent has the right to judge but also that the parent’s love is conditional on the child living up to his/her standards. Again, “Good job!” or some other positively judgmental response is what he is looking for. Unfortunately, it is the best he can hope for because he assumes love is conditional. But is this the message you want to send?
Contrast both of the above with some other possibilities.
- “This work is mine. It shows who I am. I am proud of it. I don’t need (or even want) your approval. I am showing it to you because I want you to know me and celebrate with me.” This is the thinking of a child who knows he is loved regardless of his abilities or performance. He is on his way to becoming a confident, independent person. What he wants to hear in response is that his parent recognizes this and celebrates it with him. He wants to hear something like “Thank you for sharing that with me. I know you a little better now.” Or “You did it! You’ve been trying to do that for a long time and now you’ve done it! Hooray!” If, on the other hand, the parent fails to recognize what the child wants is someone to celebrate with him and instead the parent praises him, she has unwittingly stolen from the child the right to judge his own work.
- Sometimes, especially when separation is an issue, a child’s gift is a product of his search for a way to maintain connection while separated. A bouquet of wilted dandelions, a pocketful of stones may have been gathered to say “I miss you, Mommy. I was thinking of you all morning and I collected these things for you to maintain our connection.” How sad if the parent see only some colorless stones or dead flowers. This is your chance to endow objects with the power to maintain connection over time and space and to assure him that your connection is secure despite separation.
- And finally, some gifts are the spontaneous expressions of childhood joy and of the emergence of the capacity to give love and not just receive it as in infancy. Accept them with gratitude and cherish the love that is behind them.
So, when your child presents you with that now crumpled drawing or empties his pockets on the kitchen table, ask yourself “What is he telling me?” “What response does he need from me?” And don’t forget to look in the backpack and encourage him to remember to share the products of his day away from home.
Carol Tolonen is a developmental psychologist and parenting coach. She is trained as a psychotherapist and as a spiritual counselor. She has 26 years experience teaching science and outdoor education to the children at Putnam Indian Field School.