Thursday, January 13, 2011

I have to celebrate you, baby, I have to praise you like I should

(Remember that song?)

I swear, sometimes my life is like one long to do list. It always has been. When I was a kid, I'd make a list every day and I'd always start it by "#1. Finish this list." I don't do that anymore but I still love crossing stuff off. These days, though, it seems like as soon as I finish something I have ten more things I have to do next. It doesn't ever seem to slow down. The good news is that I love all the things I do in my life: I love my family, I love my job, I love to walk, to read, to go food shopping, to keep my house clean, everything no matter how big or small. I know how to make chores fun and I have trained myself to view the icky parts of my job or parenting as "growth opportunities" so they don't really feel that icky. And I pack every minute of every day chock full of stuff and I go and go and go until I fall into bed at night totally and utterly exhausted. The bad news is that no matter how much I accomplish I don't have time to stop and look back and say wow, look at how hard I worked. There's too much to do. Occasionally some friend or family member will tell me to stop and take stock of some of the achievements I've made in my life but it's not something I do with ease. It just feels weird.

It's great to be a productive person but the bad part is that I can't relax. When I have spare time, I wash dishes with loud music playing, I clean out closets and make a pile for Goodwill, I work on our family budget or write long emails. On the subway I listen to podcasts on my iPod while reading or frantically typing work emails on my Blackberry until my thumbs ache. If I watch a movie with Johnny in the evenings, I have my laptop with me on the couch and I'm either doing work or some other thing. It's like I'm a physics theorem about objects in motion staying in motion. If I stop, even for a second, I fall asleep. And I wonder why I have chronic neck, shoulder and back pain. It's not good. In fact the only time I'm not doing a hundred things at once is when I'm alone with Thora. She gets 100% of me. Even then it's only too easy to reach for my Blackberry or to try to put things away or cook a meal or do some other small task but she reminds me that she needs all of me, all of the time we are together, and I appreciate those reminders.

I am generally a good multitasker. I prefer the term "project manager" - a title I had professionally for many years - since all the things I do are important to me. Despite the research that claims a multitasker really does nothing thoroughly or well, I can focus on one thing or twenty things and I generally get them done well. I do have to write literally every single thing down or I will forget my own name - I keep a calendar chock full of birthdays, bill pay reminders, appointments, meetings, plans with friends, classes for Thora, etc. If I don't write something down in my calendar, it's as good as gone. So maybe my life is hectic, okay, but generally, I get things done and I like it like this.

I wonder if Thora isn't a lot like her mama in this way. I secretly think she's got this internal to-do list. Every day she checks off something. Since I last wrote a blog entry, she's met some major (and minor) milestones. At one day shy of eleven months, she's grown top teeth (both of them!) and a fifth and now a sixth tooth (bottom sides); she can stand with no support; she can run all over the apartment pushing whatever strange object she can rest her weight on; she can clearly say old words like "cat" and new words like "daddy" and "ball;" she dances whenever we put music on; she points when we say "Where's the plant?" or "Where are the flowers?" She brushes her teeth twice a day (can you believe it?) and slides down the slide by herself at Gymboree. She's been clapping and waving for so long now that neither feels like a big deal anymore even though I waited with bated breath for her to figure out both. She has, with our help, established a corner for herself in the living room. She has shelves she can reach with her board books, toys, musical instruments and other things all within her grasp. She plays quietly by herself in her corner while we watch her, excited to see her choose a book and open it and sit there like she's reading it (even if it's upside down). Every day, she's doing something new. And she is excited by all of it. She is moving moving moving until bedtime, which we have to do in long drawn out stages: first dinnertime, then bath, then baby foot and leg massage with lotion and dressing in pajamas, then quiet playtime to soft music while we have our dinner, then music is off and we head into her room, put on her noise machine, dim her lights, and read a chapter in a book (we're reading Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle right now) and then lights out and we rock in the glider, nursing until she's out. And believe me that during the first five or ten minutes of this time she's still wiggling and giggling and sticking her fingers in my mouth and tugging on my necklacke and doing everything she can to say "I'm not tired! I'm not tired!" and then I feel her relax and see her eyes close and all at once, she's out cold. Like mother, like daughter.

The thing Thora seems to have perfected in the last month is her Velcro impersonation. What a clingy kid she can be! I am most reminded of how strange it is that I am a grownup now and have my own child when I am making dinner and suddenly have a baby standing at my feet, tugging at the knees of my pants or when I'm in the bathroom trying to pee and there's a baby pushing the door in and pulling herself up to a stand on my bare legs. Working from home is challenging for all three of us because when I am there, Thora sees only me. This is discouraging for Johnny and frustrating for me because while I don't mind nursing on a conference call, she often grabs the headset wires and presses the mute/unmute/disconnect button while I'm midsentence.

Anyway, getting back to all the things my kid does. A great parenting book I'm reading called Becoming the Parent You Want to Be encourages parents to observe their child. So I've been paying closer attention to what she does on her own and how she just seems to love trying new things. I want to scoop her up and snuggle her and tell her how amazing she is, how smart she is, what a perfect child she is. I want to congratulate her on absolutely everything to let her know how much I love her and how proud I am of her.

I realize this is over the top. My own parents are not the hugging, lovey type. I, on the other hand, am very huggy and loving with my child. I kiss her because her she's near me, I hug her because we're in the same room. I don't need a reason to tell her I love her, which I do multiple times a day. But I am trying now to think carefully about what I say to her. My instincts scream "Good girl!" and "You're the best!" and "What a beautiful girl!" but I know that praising her blindly is not going to help her. I don't want to feed her ego and I don't want her to become complacent. I want to praise her in a meaningful way, for her efforts, for her determination. Not because she has pretty eyes or because she claps her hands or poops on the potty, or because she tried a new vegetable before preferring a cookie. I am careful with words like "best" now. I often say "best movie ever!" or "best vegan cookie ever!" but it's just a phrase and when I find myself telling my child she has the best laugh ever or sighing over her sleeping body and saying to Johnny "we have the best baby," I know I need to think carefully before I speak. Having the best of something implies that someone else has the worst of something. So I don't want to puff my kid up. So I need to figure out where I stand on praise and then work to change my thoughtless language.

There are lots of different theories on this. For example, my parents never said much about my grades on report card days. I had friends, on the other hand, whose parents paid them per A or who, when the kid brought home a 97, wanted to know where the other three points were, or who grounded their kid when they got Ds or Fs. Mine shrugged and mumbled something about "very nice," even when the grades came from Hunter High School. When I applied nowhere but to Hunter College for my undergrad, they seemed fine with it. When I applied to U Penn, U Chicago, Yale and Harvard for my graduate work and got into all four, they seemed equally fine and they took my selection of a free ride plus stipend to Harvard the same way they would have if I'd told them I was going to Apex Tech. I asked my father about this and he said that the school of thought at the time was that I should be getting good grades and succeeding academically because *I* wanted to do well, not because they wanted me to do well. But I felt like school was one thing I was always good at and it was disappointing that they didn't acknowledge it in any way. Another example that comes to mind is this: I know someone who pays his teenage daughter for every book she reads. This to me seems preposterous. I want Thora to read because she likes to read and not because I am bribing her, but that lands me in the camp that my dad was in all those years, right? I guess I'm ultimately somewhere in the middle.

The book I'm reading talks about acknowledgment being a better choice than praise. it suggests saying "I can see that you're working very hard on that painting, why don't you describe it to me?" instead of "Oh that's the most beautiful painting, you are such a great artist!" This is something I like and can live with because it's interactive and it doesn't label. What is the point of praising Thora? What do I hope to accomplish? The bottom line is that I want to acknowledge her for who she is and what she does, not that I really believe she is the best or prettiest or smartest or most creative of all. I do think frustration is important and I want her to work for her accomplishments but I want her to know that I'm watching her very step of the way, that I am paying undivided attention to her, that I see her and want to hear from her about what she does and why she does it, and most of all that I love her completely and unconditionally and I would even if she did none of those things well or at all.


  1. "I wanna praise you like I shouldddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd"

    That part always made me laugh. Digital audio manipulation.

    But that's not what I really wanted to mention here. Thora sounds like she's very advanced. That's fantastic. She's doing so much at such a young age. You guys are doing a great job.

    Regarding praise, I think, as with most everything, the key is moderation. Don't flip out and go crazy over every little thing, but don't ignore stuff, either. We tell Xavier he's doing a good job when he does something right. We tell him he's smart, etc, but it's not excessive. We're huggy and kissy, but we also let him have space.

    It's a balancing act, and I think we also need to accept that we're not going to be perfect or get everything just right. And don't worry--things will be fine.

  2. I've been reading that too. The HUGE thing for me is not to tell her "you're ok" when she fusses. That is automatic for me, it's what my parents told me constantly when I was growing up. And it's such a harsh thing to say in reality. You're basically telling your child they shouldn't be upset or sad, that they shouldn't be having the feelings they are feeling. Which confuses them (because they still have those feelings, but now are told they shouldn't) and also causes shame because they realize they are having emotions you don't approve of. So I'm trying my best to instead say "sounds like you're frustrated, you must be getting tired." it's a constant battle to retrain the brain!

  3. It's funny, I was just talking with Steve the other night about the degree to which I praise, compliment and just love on Anna, wondering if I'm setting her up for disappointment later in life, in the real world, or if I'm building her self esteem. Or maybe if I give her too much affection she'll have a hard time finding a partner who can satisfy her expectations for that kind of love. Great post.


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