Catch them doing something right
Whoever invented children forgot to make them act and behave exactly the way we parents and educators would like them too. Consequently, it takes a lot of hard work to make them perfect in our eyes. It means catching them when they are doing something wrong and correcting their behavior. Now, if you have a typical healthy, inquisitive child that likes to push boundaries in order to grow up into a healthy, independent human being, you might find yourself doing a lot of “correcting” along the way. I was certainly raised that way, with relatively good success.
Then came the time to have my own children. Naturally, I followed the path I had been taught and praised my children when they were obviously extremely clever, resourceful, compliant or otherwise pleasant to be around with. And I “corrected” or reprimanded them when I caught them doing something “wrong.” Now, if you are a parent (and even if you are not) I probably don’t have to tell you that the ratio of praise vs. reprimands was tilted greatly toward the critical comments.
About 20 years later. My children are nearly grown up, and I realize that I could have done a lot better. During the course of my own personal development in recent years I discovered that focusing on the shortcomings of our loved ones may be a reflex that we have grown up based on our own upbringing, but it certainly has proven counter effective in many instances. Kids would describe that as the “Mom’s Nag.” And I know I can certainly be accused of that. Moms all over the world, do you recognize that?
However, I did also discover, not too long ago, that there is an alternative, and it is called “catching them doing something right.” Here is the story of a mom who was told by her 9-year-old son’s teachers that he had the unsavory habit of picking his nose in class—non-stop—all reprimands notwithstanding. Mom, upon returning from the conference with the teacher did what probably most moms would do: reprimand him some more. The effect was, as you might guess, exactly the opposite. He started doing it at home—right in front of her. Luckily, Mom turned smart. She stopped paying attention to his behavior and instead, in the evenings when she put him to bed, told him all the things she was proud of in him. What do you know, within 5 days all his nose-picking stopped, completely!
This is just a small demonstration of how positive reinforcement is a much stronger force than a focus on the negative. When we tell our children what we love about them, comment (sincerely, please) on any behavior that shows their strength or grace of character and catch them doing something helpful, no matter how small, we encourage them to do more of it. Children, after all, do want to please (even if that is not always evident ?) and the more we give them the opportunity to do so and show and develop their strong sides, the more empowered, loved and confident they will be.
As for my own children, they made me, perhaps rightly so, understand that they had enough of my nagging and went into distance mode—until I recently changed my own “tactics” and awareness that they are not human beings that need to be corrected, but wonderful youngsters with lots of potential, strengths and passions that need to be encouraged and noted. The rewards were not long in manifesting themselves. They spontaneously opened up and began telling me more about their day, some of their concerns, and the fun things they did. For me, that was the best reward and a powerful demonstration that focusing on the positive comes with many more benefits than trying to fix what is “wrong.”
And here is the interesting part: Of course, all of the above is not limited to our interactions with children. In fact, how much do we differ in that regard from children? How do we feel when we are being reprimanded and/or “corrected” by our partners, supervisors or colleagues? What happens to our energy level, our self-esteem? How different is it when we receive a sincere compliment or a comment about something we did well? You see, you are still the same person. And you may not be perfect in many aspects, but everyone does have qualities and behaviors that demonstrate skill, talent, strength of character, values and much more. However, how often are these just taken for granted and the focus goes back to what needs to be “corrected.”
If we want to improve the environment we live in, our families, communities, the society at large, we need to change our “tactics” as well. We need a paradigm shift away from looking what is there to “fix,” and rather focus on what is going well, what we want more of and how we would like our environments to be.
And we can begin with ourselves. Start “catching yourself doing something right,” look at your qualities more than at your shortcomings (we all have them regardless) and notice the growth in confidence in yourself. Next, turn to your loved ones and point out to them what you appreciate in them. Increase the ratio of positive reinforcement comments vs. any critical comments. See what happens. In a week, in a month, etc. Before you know it, you will be on automatic pilot.
Extend your “catching them doing something right” to your friends and colleagues. If you are a supervisor or manager, practice on your direct reports. You will notice a shift in how they react toward you and in their level of motivation and cooperation. Imagine the energy that is unleashed by this simple act of awareness and recognition of other people’s strengths and talents?
Why not give it a try? You have nothing to lose, except perhaps a paradigm whose days have come to an end.