If you're like me and scores of other Singaporean parents, we're always at our kids' throats when they do something wrong. "Why so many careless mistakes?" "How come so untidy?" "Why didn't you complete your homework?"
I don't know about you but even though I've probably read a thousand times that positive strokes work better than negative ones, barking comes instinctive to me. I suspect it's in my DNA.
It's easier to be encouraging to kids who are generally good, those who always do their work well and never give any trouble. In our household, this would be Lesley-Anne. She does well in school and even though there are subjects she struggles with, she works diligently at them. It's hard to get mad at a child with a dedicated work ethic.
Andre is different. His school work see-saws depending on whether he was particularly inspired at the time he was doing it. It sometimes takes several repetitions before can grasp a concept and he often forgets what he has learnt. When the going get tough, he loses interest, makes excuses or cries. It's much harder to maintain a positive attitude towards those kids who constantly don't conform, so it's no surprise that he tends to get the brunt of scoldings. Kenneth is even more impatient than I am, especially when he attempts to teach Andre and I often have to remind him that Andre not understanding his work is not a deliberate ploy to spite him.
There were periods last year when Andre seemed forlorn and subdued, almost lost. It felt like he was going through the daily motions aimlessly, getting into trouble or throwing tantrums without being able to explain why. It got to a point where I felt sorry for him - he was like a little lost sheep. I started making a conscious effort to praise him more, even for little things, and not be so quick to jump on his mistakes. I don't remember when it began but when I put him to bed at night, in addition to the usual hugs and kisses, I told him, "You're a good boy." It wasn't a conscious action on my part until a few weeks later, I suddenly noticed that it had become a ritual and I was telling him this every night. "You're a good boy."
Maybe subconsciously, I realised that Andre needed affirmation of his self-worth. You know, children who get into trouble a lot often think that they're bad children. When they are constantly admonished for their misdeeds, it's hard for them to distinguish between the act and the person. Many of them actually believe that they are not good and ironically, start acting out according to this perception of them.
This is the classic labelling and self-fulfilling prophecy effect where we act the way we are treated. If we are treated as if we are bad, stupid or whatever, we will act, and even become, this way. In a 1969 ground-breaking study by Rosenthal and Jacobson, all the children in an elementary class were given a test and the teachers were told that some of children were unusually clever (though they were actually average). At the end of the school year, the same class was tested and the children were who identified had improved their scores far more than other children. How did this happen? The teachers believed these kids were smarter and treated them as such. When treated as such, the kids started thinking they were smarter and actually BECAME smarter. Mind-boggling stuff.
A kid who's constantly told he's naughty continues to act out because he believes he has no choice, that's who he is. This also potentially leads to poorer self-image and an inner belief that he's less deserving of love or acceptance from his parents, society or God because he's inherently bad.
We need to be aware and change this. Never, never, never call your children "naughty", "bad", "petty", "lazy", etc. Correct the mistake but don't label the person. By doing so, we're actually sabotaging ourselves and reinforcing the behaviour.
This year, I find that Andre has become more sensible. He fusses less about doing his homework, he seems to have settled in better in school. Now when he gets a sub-par mark for spelling or ting xie, there's no need to scold him because he's visibly dissatisfied with his own result. Last week, he had so much homework that it overran into his play time but he told me he's not complaining because he knows the exams are coming. (Of course he had to advertise it to me lah, a sacrifice is not a sacrifice unless someone knows about it).
Maybe he's just maturing naturally but what's clear to me is that the positive strokes have motivated him significantly better than the scoldings. Maybe hearing that he's a good boy every night has in some small part, helped him realise that his scrapes and misdemeanors don't define who he is.
I've known all along that Andre's a good boy at heart. He just needed to believe it too.
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8 months ago