A happy, respectful kid is a kid who believes "I'm good"

by Gary M. Unruh
(Colorado Springs, Colorado)

Finally I was going to meet Nate *. His parents had started attending my parental-love workshops when he was having trouble in the second grade, and they had been at several refresher classes since then. I felt like I knew Nate.

Now he was two weeks from high school graduation, and I was inviting him to have a seat in my office. With a smile that lit up the room he said, "Finally I get to meet the guy who taught my mom and dad about parental love. I thought you might want to hear about what awesome parents I have."

Self-confidence filled the room, and his enthusiasm was contagious. Anticipating his story, I said, "It's great to finally meet you. I'll never forget how worried your mom and dad were about you when I first met them eleven years ago. They were the only parents who stayed after the workshop to get some extra help. Do you remember what was going on then?"

"Like it was yesterday. I hated school when I was in second grade. My mom and dad had just divorced, and I thought it was my fault. Kids laughed at me when I couldn't read. And at recess, when the teacher couldn't hear, kids called me 'retardo'. I blew up at the littlest thing. I felt completely different than everyone, totally unaccepted by everyone - including my parents."

"And Mom and Dad, well, they looked mad and said kinda mean stuff when I screwed up, which seemed like all the time. 'If we get another call about you bugging other kids', they'd say, 'there'll be no cartoons on Saturday.' That was on top of me staying one week with Mom and one week with Dad, which I hated. And I hated reading. They made me read to them fifteen minutes every night. I can remember crying myself to sleep a lot, and talking to myself. I'd think - 'What's wrong with me? I always mess up. I am a retardo.' I don't think I said it out loud, but looking back, I felt bad all the time, nobody liked me, especially my parents, and I wanted them to like me more than anyone. I guess I said, 'You don't love me' a lot."

"And then everything changed. I don't remember all the details, but I do remember over Christmas break during my second grade year, Mom and Dad started to act different. I think that must have been when they attended your workshop for the first time. They both sat with me at the dining room table. I knew something was up because we had already eaten. Anyway, they told me it wasn't my fault that they got divorced. All I remember is crying, running into my mom's lap and both of us hugging real hard. That was like a two-ton rock being lifted off my back."

"Then they started something that really was strange at first. Mom and Dad bought and hung up a poster that had weird-looking faces, must have been maybe twenty of them with words under each face - angry, happy, sad - you know, feelings. And every time a situation came up - like happy or sad or I messed up - they'd ask me how I felt first, and said the feelings were okay. I can still remember the first time it happened just after the teacher sent a note home that I'd had a bad temper tantrum. My mom said something like 'You must have really been upset. What happened?' And she said it without a mean look or angry words, almost happy looking. Of course, we dealt with the problem after I had a chance to get the feelings out. Before, they seemed always unhappy when I messed up. Now they weren't. I felt really different, in a good way. And I wasn't feeling 'I'm bad' all the time."

"I can remember always wanting to please Mom and Dad, make them happy about me, accept me. I guess everyone's that way. Before I could never please them, but now with this feelings stuff, they looked pleased almost all the time. They told me later that within weeks I stopped saying, 'You don't love me' and started saying, 'I love you.'"

"My mom and dad tell me that within several months after all the feelings stuff started to happen, I was always talking about my feelings. I remember talking about how dumb I was in reading, being called a 'retardo', getting in trouble from the teacher. Mom and Dad listened to me and said things like 'You should feel sad', or 'That would make me mad too.' That's the way they always started, and then we worked on what I could do to improve. I felt relieved to be listened to first before we worked on changing things. Oh yeah, before, when I said, 'I'm dumb', they'd always say, 'You're really smart.' But I never believed them."

"One big thing that happened is that I learned how to talk about feelings just before I was going to blow up. Mom and Dad taught me to say, 'I'm upset and need to go to another room to calm down.' My temper tantrums went away completely, well almost, according to my mom, within several months."

"All this feelings stuff didn't mean I could get away with bad - oops! I mean unacceptable - behavior. Mom and Dad like me to say 'unacceptable', not 'bad.' Let's say I stayed too long at a friend's house. I could count on some kind of consequence, most of the time fair. They always covered feelings first, though, stuff like 'I know it's hard to remember time when you're having fun. Or when I was a older, 'Sometimes it seems like you don't put much effort into respecting the rules we all agreed upon.' They wouldn't hesitate to increase the consequences to get the point across. Even though I gave them the 'nobody else's parents are as strict as you guys' speech, I knew down deep inside that I deserved whatever they gave me. "

"Oh yeah, I've got to tell you how they dealt with the reading problem. Don't worry, I'll make it fast - I had lost track of time."

"They basically made my reading goals easy at first. Then the goals got harder as I became a better reader. And I had enough failures mixed in to give me confidence to stick with stuff even when failures happened."

"And effort, that's all my folks focused on. 'As long as you are trying your hardest most of the time, that's all we care about.' There was almost no emphasis on grades, just effort. I know I'm getting off the subject here, but they did the same with soccer. They found a coach who focused on effort and all the other stuff about soccer, not just winning. My parents were something else. I just read that new Nurtureshock book for my advanced placement psych class, and it said the same thing my folks said: Praise the effort not just the outcome. "

"I've got to tell you about how I overcame being a retardo in reading. We still read every night, but Mom and Dad reduced the time to ten minutes and they would read five sentences and I read one - so easy I couldn't believe it. Then after a page, I would tell them what I had read, which was kinda fun, actually. Before I knew it, I was reading four sentences and them two. And it helped for the teacher to do the same thing at school. With the help of a tutor, I was at grade level halfway through my third grade. A big smile and fist pump in the air punctuated his point."

"Oh, the last thing I want to tell you is how my mom, dad, and teacher helped me stop bugging other kids. My poor teacher. Here's the deal. Every period of the day I didn't bug someone, I'd get a smiley face. If I got four smileys out of a possible six, I got a Pokemon card at home. You know how much fun it was to get a Pokemon card? In the first week I remember I got four cards. Long story short, my folks said the problem was basically solved within three weeks."

At the end of the meeting after a lot more great stories, I asked Nate to tell me what he had learned from his parents. He thought for a moment and then said with a big smile, "I learned that what you do isn't what's most important. It's accepting that you're plenty good, just for who you are, as my dad says, 'warts and all.' When you feel that way about yourself, improving really is fun, most of the time. "

"Oh, one more thing. With Mom and Dad accepting me 'warts and all', I learned it felt really good to be accepted no matter what I did - even when I made mistakes, which they always helped me to correct, of course. And here's the cool thing. I really want to do the same thing for other people - accept and respect them no matter what, even when they mess up."

"And I guess a big part of it is feelings. Mom and Dad taught me that feelings are the name of the game."

As he left, he said, "Did I tell you I'm going to college to be a school social worker? I can't wait to help kids who feel bad, to feel good about themselves."

*Not the child's actual name. Some story modifications have been made for confidentiality purposes.

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