Catch ‘em being good

I used to have the worst children in the world. Truly, I did. And I knew that they were the worst children in the world because the evidence came out of my own mouth. I had to criticize them constantly because of the way they ignored instructions, the way they broke rules, and the way they fought with each other. I knew in my mind that I loved them — they were, after all, my children — but my heart had doubts, because they were so very difficult.

I was complaining about them one day to a wise man and he stopped me in my tracks by asking, “Do you ever catch them being good?” My instantaneous response: “Huh?” He explained to me that most people have a bit of a problem with giving praise because good behavior is considered normative and that it therefore slips past them, unnoticed. We see when our children hit each other, but we take as ordinary, and unworthy of comment, the fact that they had spent the previous half hour playing peacefully together. He told me that a good rule of thumb with children — indeed, with anyone — is that for every negative thing that comes out of your mouth, at least four positive things should also come out of your mouth. As to the latter, you shouldn’t lie or make up things, but you shouldn’t let the ordinary dissuade you from making a positive comment.

For the first week, it was I bit of struggle. “Oh, Little Bookworm, I’m so proud of you. I know you wanted to, but you didn’t hit your brother.” (Normally, I would simply have commented on the yelling that took place.) “Look at you, Little Bookworm. You’ve eaten much more neatly than you did yesterday.” (Previously, I would have pointed out the mess on the floor.) By the end of this week of mental effort, I discovered something wonderful: I actually had — and continue to have — great children.

Now, many years later, my heart and my head are in synch — I love my kids, because they are lovable. Sure, they can be naughty, but isn’t that true for everybody? And yes, when I’m in a bad mood, the criticisms definitely amp up, and I have to remind myself, still, to catch ’em being good. But after so many years, catching them being good is mostly automatic, with manifest benefits for us all.

Believe it or not, this bit of parenting advice (and it’s the best advice any parent will ever get), has a political purpose, but I’m taking my time getting there. Part two of this story is the conversation I had the other day with my sister, who was reminiscencing about the fact that she always found my Mom rather frightening. She acknowledged that Mom was constantly professing her love for us but, when it came to my sister, every “I love you” was followed by a criticism. “I love you. Your room is a mess.” “I love you. Stop slouching.” “I love you. Why aren’t you doing better in school?” As an adult, my sister knows that my Mom truly adored her, and felt that the best thing she could do for my sister was to improve her with a constant, bracing storm of criticism. As a child, though, my sister came to a different conclusion: Either my mother was a fool, for how could anyone but a fool profess love for a creature as imperfect as my sister obviously was, or my mother was a liar, and did not love her at all.

(Incidentally, I had a different experience. Since I was the younger child watching these “loving” harangues, I made sure to clean my room, stand up straight and do well in school. Mom happily praised me for doing well in these areas, in contrast to my sister. It speaks well for the enormity of my sister’s goodness that she loved me then and loves me now.)

And now I’ll get to the political point:  Don’t the ordinary Progressives, not the dyed-in-the-wool Marxists masquerading as Progressives, but the ordinary, man-in-the-street Progressives, remind you of the parenting style that professes love but only voices criticism?  Though they claim to be patriotic Americans, everything they say about America is critical:  America is too racist, too classist, too rich, too greedy, too abusive of the environment, too religious, too conservative, too xenophobic, and on and on.   Never, never, do the Progressives catch America being good.  So perhaps, the ordinary person, the one who is not politically engaged, might be excused for thinking that Progressives are either fools, for how could anyone but a fool claim to love such a dreadful society, or they’re liars, and don’t really love America at all.