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Last month I was stuck on the sofa for three days with the worst case of stomach flu I've ever had. My son spent a lot of his time heating up soup, running the vacuum, and making sure the dishes stayed under control.
He asked me what I wanted to watch on television and made sure his brother and sister kept quiet during their Mario Brothers match, which was escalating at an alarming rate after I'd finally drifted off to sleep.
These are things he rarely does when I am healthy, and I thanked him for the active role he had in the house while I was incapable of doing anything.
But I also did something else: I told him I was proud of him.
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Yes, caring for your sick mother is something our older kids should just know to do when there isn’t an adult around.
As a teenager who’s on summer vacation with a free day spread before him, I didn't just want to thank him. I wanted him to know I was proud of the way he conducted himself, as I knew he'd rather be doing his own thing instead of picking up around the house and feeding his mom liquid meals.
I've failed to do this many times as a mother over the years, and I decided to make a change. We have behaviors we expect of our children, and there are a lot of times we put more energy into praising them for a good report card or making a team, and not enough time letting them know we are proud of them for helping others, being aware, or showing generosity.
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I know these words don't carry a lot of weight with my teenagers. They shrug my praises off and seem embarrassed I'm making such a big deal out of what they think is a small thing. Many times they've told me to "stop talking like that."
I know my kids don't realize this, and they probably won't until they have kids of their own, but their grades, how many goals they score, and how often they floss doesn’t dictate my proudness-level when it comes to being a parent.
When they do something like make a basket during their basketball game or are on the honor roll, of course I am proud, and I tell them. But we give so much attention to these things, I feel like some kids feel they don’t matter if they get average grades or don’t get much playing time.
Our kids need to know they are more than their grades and how many points they score in a game.
So, lately I've made it a point to acknowledge (even more so than other accomplishments), when my youngest helps his sister fold the laundry. Or when my oldest son helps his younger brother with homework. Or the Saturday afternoon my daughter took some of the money I'd given her to go shopping with a friend and she bought her younger brother a bag of his favorite candy.
This will teach them to model the same behavior to others, and we all want and deserve to be recognized for acts of kindness some of the time whether they are "expected" of us or not—it's a contagious feeling and flows from one person to the next.
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Last night as I sat around a table with my daughter and her eighth-grade teachers, one of them said, "Yes, I teach my students about photosynthesis. And if they learn everything there is to know about photosynthesis but I have not shown them they need to be responsible, hand in work in time, be accountable for their actions, and respectful to their peers while they are in my classroom, I've haven't done my job."
We feel the same about the way we parent. Sure, we can raise talented kids who might excel in a sport, get the lead part in the school play, or earn a full scholarship.
But if that same child isn't kind to their peers; if they don't practice gratitude; if they aren't held accountable for their actions; if they aren't aware and compassionate, then we aren't doing our job.
All of these characteristics build kind, respectful children who turn into kind, respectful adults whether they're praised when they come to the aid of their sibling, even if they are mad at them, or they are helping out with the school fundraiser.
How we treat these small acts matters.
I'm not talking about inducing in this idea that they get a trophy for every little thing they do, but as parents, it's our job to reinforce a good behavior. And most of the time all it takes is letting them know you see the little things they do.
I know I spend a lot of time trying to teach, get them to try harder, self-motivate, but letting my kids know I am prouder of them for thinking of others first and lending a helping hand than I am for their grades and sport achievements is more important to me as a mother of three teenagers.