Sunday, May 22, 2011

i love you, you're perfect, now change

I love the title of that play because I think it so aptly describes human interaction, especially with spouses and children, at its basic emotional level. As Vivi grows into an intelligent and headstrong three-year-old, I am continually challenged to strike the balance between instruction and acceptance. After all, what are parents if not adults who impose our values and expectations on our little sponges?

Parents who've seen the proud smile of a praised child--and any child psychologist worth their salt--can attest that the secret to achieving lasting behavior modification is positive reinforcement. In our case, Nate and I realized the most glaring example of this truth last fall in a manner too disgusting to describe here, even for a mommy blogger. I'll sum it up by saying after your kid does the most dirty of deeds on your living room floor and then dances a little jig while you and your husband scream and pull your hair out, it doesn't take long to realize you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Sure enough, as soon as we stopped making a big deal about it...voila! Potty trained child.

So if we have hard evidence of the benefits of positive reinforcement, why is it so hard to enact consistently? I've been pondering this question frequently. Perhaps it seems counter-intuitive to praise the good and ignore the bad given our adherence to the Biblical adage, spare the rod, spoil the child. And an authoritative parent like myself who has witnessed many gross displays of overpraising ("Oh good, Johnny! Thank you for not smacking Mommy in the face! What a good little boy you are!") desires to avoid going down that laissez faire road at all cost. But I find with some compassion and a lot of patience, I can offer both discipline and praise. After some soul searching and good old fashioned hard work, I believe I've come to strike a zen-like, albeit sometimes stressed, disposition in my household. In my mind, the key to this delicate equilibrium is to punish consistently the behavior you find intolerable, whatever that might be (for me, it's back-talk and hitting), but ignore the annoying but tolerable behaviors like thumb-sucking and seat-kicking.

"When you understand, you cannot help but love. You cannot get angry. To develop understanding, you have to practice looking...with eyes of compassion. When you understand, you love. And, when you love you naturally act in a way that can relieve the suffering of people." -Thich Nhat Hahn

I am a lover of Buddhist teachings, less on a spiritual level than a practical one. A former psychology student, I routinely scrutinize my interactions with those I love most dearly, and I seek advice of the wise and experienced out there, whatever their philosophical or religious leanings might be. Since I haven't yet found myself a personal monk or guru, I read books and attend therapy sessions instead. I freely admit I have needed both lately to tame the beast I've previously described here. Again and again, my studies lead me to one word: compassion. Who would think that such a primitive and vital principle would be at times so elusive? And yet, even with all of the outpouring of emotion, the unconditional love, the joie de vivre I express to and for my family, it is unconditional acceptance that I find tricky to attain. Managing my expectations and withholding attempts to control my kids are my parenting Achilles' heels. I am reminded again of Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, who says parents love their children not because they are good but because they are their children. And so, I will endeavor to be more compassionate.

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