Recently, my husband and I went hiking with our boys. I ended up with a four-year-old on my back as I made my way up a pretty strenuous two mile trail. Not being one to waste an opportunity, I decided to turn this into a training exercise and kicked it into high gear. It was rough. My son was heavy, the path was steep and I was feeling pretty toasty. As I neared the summit I could feel my energy waning and my stamina failing me. “What do you think?” I huffed and puffed to my son. Don’t judge me, but what I wanted him to say was, “You are doing a good job, Mama!” And if he screamed it at the top of his lungs, that would have been all the better. I have to admit that I wanted him to praise me. I wanted encouragement; I wanted him to notice how hard I was working and pat me on the back and tell me how great I was doing. In this time when the use of praise in parenting is being thoughtfully considered, when even I have written about avoiding praise in general, I fully admit to wanting a “good job, Mama” from him.
But he didn’t give it.
Instead he said, “I think that the uphill seems longer than the downhill.”
Huh. “Anything else? Do you notice anything else?” I REALLY wanted him to tell me I was doing great.
“Yep. I notice that you’re very sweaty and you need a shower.”
I couldn’t argue that, but it wasn’t exactly encouraging. He kept going. “I notice the hill is getting steeper.” “I’m pretty tired of riding; are we going to be there soon?” “I’m hungry for my sandwich, I think it’s past lunch time.” “This is taking a long time.” “Can I go back and get that stick?” “I wonder if Mr. Incredible would jump right off this cliff.” For the last 10 minutes of my workout, I got a steady stream of four-year-old consciousness. When we got to the top, he went about his business of scouring the area for bugs and sticks and bad guys while I tried to regain feeling in my legs and convince my lungs not to explode. After a few minutes I shamelessly tried one last time to get some praise.
“I didn’t think we would make it, did you?”
He looked at me blankly. “Why wouldn’t we have made it?”
I realized in that moment that he didn’t feel any need to praise or encourage me because he had no concept that I wouldn’t accomplish the task. He also had no idea what the task was or why I was doing it. For him, saying “good job” would have been meaningless. (I also realized that it shouldn’t be his job to praise me and the fact that I was hoping for it was a little bit silly, but that’s another story.)
But, in that moment, I also recognized that while we may be questioning the use of praise in general, maybe there is a time and place for cheerleading in parenting. There are many times when children struggle just as much with a task as I was struggling up the hill. Maybe they are laboring to complete a new skill, working hard to accomplish something that may be taking all their energy, concentration and effort. Maybe they are on the verge of giving up and what they really need is a cheerleader. Someone to get excited and urge them on and say, “Look at you! You’re doing it! Hooray! Keep working!” at the top of our lungs. I think that this type of praise is different from the “good job” we throw out 10 or 20 times a day for meaningless things. In fact, I think it is less about the words we use and more about being present in the moment. Sometimes the moment calls for reflecting, sometimes it calls for stepping out of the way and sometimes it calls for cheerleading.
And, maybe even more importantly, I realized that we as parents sometimes need the same thing. Parenting can be strenuous, difficult, trying, tricky, stressful and downright exhausting. Our backs creak and our hearts ache and our heads hurt. Sometimes it can feel like we will never make it up the hill with the kid on our back. And not only are we carrying the kids, but we are balancing work and home and partners and day-to-day responsibilities. And, on top of that, we are becoming more and more conscientious of how we parent and why we parent and how we say something and why we say something. We don’t just stop at being loving parents, we have incredible expectations. The mountain is high and sometimes we just need someone to yell at the top of their lungs that they think we are doing a great job.
So maybe we don’t always respond to our kids the right way. And maybe we gave praise when we could have reflected. And maybe we used “time out” as a way to take a breather. And maybe we zigged when we could have zagged or turned left when we could have gone right. Today, more than ever, parents seem to be driven to consider their parenting styles, work to improve their parenting skills and really think about themselves and their roles as parents. And for that I say: “GOOD JOB, MAMA and PAPA!”
I notice how hard you are working!
I appreciate how thoughtful you are about your parenting!
I love that you are struggling and succeeding in being a different kind of parent!
It’s hard and you are doing it!
Keep it up! It’s so worth it!
So, while we may never get it from our children, we should get it from each other. Praise, respect, encouragement, cheerleading, from one parent to another. Parenting can be a doozy of a hill. Together, we will make it to the summit. And, I hear, the view is spectacular at the top.