Unconditional

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It’s an easy, alluring trap to fall into, and I do it more often than I’d like to.

It starts so simply; one or another of them will come up to me, waving a piece of paper or a Lego monstrosity or a frog made out of craft foam, and more often than not, it’s pretty amazing. E cornered me the other day and insisted on taking me on a tour of her Minecraft island; inside her mansion is a lava-powered hot tub, a vending machine that dispenses cooked chickens, and – in the back yard – a roller coaster. She’s wiring up half the island for zombie/creeper detection with pressure plates and redstone (whatever that is; I’ve gleaned from conversation that it’s a form of crude electrical wiring) and wants me to see every square inch of her defensive perimeter.

It’s pretty amazing. And I told her so, and off she went, beaming with pride.

Did you see it happen there? It was pretty subtle. What happened is this: I unbalanced the praise equation, tilting it away from gifted-is-wiring, and toward gifted-is-output. In so doing, I created an obligation for myself to get her in a random, decidedly nonproductive moment, and tell her she’s an awesome kid, to counterbalance this moment.  That’s the way of emotional intensity. They’ve already soared to a personal emotional ‘high’ based on what they’ve created. Seeking out my approval, or Kathy’s, just takes them that much higher. Trouble is, I don’t want them to think that they have to do something to merit praise and attention – because there will be days they don’t feel like ‘producing,’ and I need each of them to know that those days are good days, too. They’re good kids on those days.

There’s nothing wrong with praising output; in this house, there’s lots of output, and I really am impressed with all of it. Output is great. But so is non-output. They’re amazing kids when they’re wiring their Minecraft islands and when they’re asleep and when they’re brushing their teeth and when they’re writing and when they’re not writing and when they are laughing and when asynchrony makes them act nine and nineteen and twenty-nine. Teaching them that gifted is wiring, not output, requires an endless rebalancing of this equation. It’s made that much harder, I’ve noticed, when they’re in their en fuego output phases, when my desk piles up with H’s cartoon cards and the floor of A’s room is awash in Legos, part of his never-ending quest to build a convincing Pelican (from Halo) and E is working out the finer points of a Minecraft dirigible.

I have to work harder to catch them in their sleepy moments, their regular-kid moments, running around the yard and shooting Nerf guns at each other and singing about the Batmobile losing a wheel. Some weeks, I don’t ever find those moments; they run at full-blast from the time they get up until the last joule of energy dissipates and dreams overtake them, and I’m left to whisper their awesomeness into sleeping ears before pulling a blanket up and kissing them goodnight. But I know at those moments that there is work to be done. Leave the equation unbalanced too long, and that toxic message would begin to seep into them, the errant concept that I love them for what they do instead of who they are.

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Dave Mayer posts regularly with his wife, Kathy, on Chasing Hollyfeld.

4 thoughts on “Unconditional

  1. While I want my kids to know that they are loved unconditionally, I also want them to feel more of a reward when they are being productive. I don’t expect them to be automatons, I just hope they accomplish what is required of them as is appropriate for their age and depending on what their individual responsibilities are. Sure, we can sometimes have non-productive days, and it doesn’t have to be the end of the world, and can be quite fun –I personally feel l have WAY too many of those –well, maybe minimally productive, as opposed to non-productive– but hopefully, we’ll feel some sort of impetus to improve on that and try to be more productive the next day. If we praise our kids equally for output and just for being alive, what motivates them to want to put forth more effort to get a job when they are older? I ask this, because we are having issues with our adult son (recently turned 22) who is struggling to find a job, but doesn’t seem to be putting forth enough effort. He refuses to shave or cut his hair, and thinks that employers shouldn’t judge him by his appearance and doesn’t want any job that would require him to do so. I would be 100% fine with that, if those jobs were easy to come by. And if he was willing and physically able to do the hard physical labor that might be involved in those types of jobs. Sorry for rambing on. On the other hand, his twin sister managed to not only move out of the house eight months before he did, she moved out of state, has a job and is taking some classes at the local college.

    On a lighter note, I think my 12-year old daughter who plays lots of minecraft would get along quite well with E!😉

  2. Lisa

    Love your insight. Alfie Kohn has done a bit of research regarding unconditional feedback/ praise that substantiates your thoughts🙂

  3. Christine Fonseca

    Great post. Personally, I think performance based praise is more meaningful to kids (in terms of the research regarding praise) AND kids deserve unconditional high regard. So, finding ways to make certain they know they are loved simply for existing on the planet is a GREAT thing in my book!!!

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