A few years ago, in my pediatrics practice, I sat with a mother who asked if she could boast about her son whom I was seeing for panic attacks. I complied. For the next five minutes or so, she exuded excitement over the fact that his grades were excellent, that he was bright, and that his soccer coach recently told him that he was one of the team’s star players.
Now this all sounds nice on the surface but think about the 15-year-old boy sitting on my exam table listening to his mother. He was here because he was experiencing acute anxiety over his schoolwork and about forgetting things in class. When he was with large groups of friends, his anxiety would become strong enough that he had to leave class, sit in the office, and calm himself down. Sometimes he couldn’t even make it to school.
How do you think he felt when his mother praised him for getting excellent grades and for being the star of the soccer team? Do you think this made him feel better about life? I don’t think so. In fact, I know so, because I watched his face as his mother spoke. Here’s the point. She is a really good mother but she, like the rest of us conscientious parents, has fallen into the trap of focusing on praising the wrong things about our kids. We think that we’re helping them feel better about themselves, but often, we aren’t when we applaud the stuff that they do and the grades that they get.
Praising a child’s performance is well and good as long as it is heavily preceded by years of praise of his character.
That’s the point. Children want to be loved and admired for the person they are, not for the work that they do. The same is true for us. Don’t we all crave being admired and loved simply because we exist? If you are a person of faith, you know that’s how God loves us. He doesn’t shout from heaven: “Great job at work! I’m so proud you got a raise!” or “Kudos to you for scoring the winning goal!”
No, God loves us simply because he created us.
Children want to be loved and admired for the person they are, not for the work that they do.
Because of this, I want to pose a challenge to you. I’m calling it the Character Challenge.
Instead of focusing on your child’s performance or behavior this summer, focus on his character, and challenge him to do the same. Sit down together and write out several positive character traits. Ask your child what he feels his strengths are and what his weaknesses are. Pick a different character trait each week to focus on. Talk about this trait and why it’s important, then come up with a way to practice it.
For example, honesty. Talk with your child about what honesty is and why it’s important. Tell her to notice when she is tempted to not be honest and to instead try to tell the truth in those moments and see how it feels.
At the end of the week, ask your child what she learned about that week’s character trait and how she might be able to apply those lessons to her life going forward.
This is a simple challenge! No crafts supplies or artwork needed. Simply focus on one trait per week. You’ll see a change in your child, and you’ll see a change in you. You’ll start praising him differently and focusing on what really matters. Your child will feel deeply loved and you will learn how to better express that love. This is just as much a challenge for kids as it is for you.