Feed Me, I’m Starving

Standing in the kitchen, getting ready for a rare outing of just the three of us (his younger sisters were with their grandparents),
the request seemed innocuous enough…”Would you read mommy the story you wrote?”  Surprisingly, he stated that he preferred she read it herself.  And so she did.  A few moments into reading it, she pointed out a spelling mistake, and that’s when everything came out.  At first, he tried to hold it back, but the force of the tears was too strong.  Soon, he was crying uncontrollably.  Our repeated inquiries into the problem were met with, “I don’t know.”  After several minutes of getting nowhere, we sent him to his room – a different environment – to calm down.

As he settled a little bit, I went up to his room, sat next to him on the bed, and began calmly asking questions.  I sought to isolate the moment he began to feel sad.  “Have you felt sad all morning?”  “No,” he said.  Incidentally, I would have been surprised; he always treasures a bit of time with just mom and dad.  “Was it when mommy said something about the spelling mistake?”  Again, “No.”  Believing that we are often too quick to criticize him, I was expecting him to say yes to this one.  “Was it when I asked you to read your story to mommy?”  “Yes,” he replied.  I began seeing that the problem was bigger than I had expected.  “Are you proud of your story?”  “I’m not sure,” he said.  “Is that because you’re not sure if you should be proud of it?”  “Yes.”

What we discovered was that he had become so sensitized to criticism that he had begun to anticipate it.  So, even when I suggested he share the story with his mom, he was imagining us telling him that it wasn’t good enough – and he just couldn’t take it (perhaps especially on this day when he was supposed to feel special with mom and dad).  To him, incidentally, the comment about the spelling mistake was merely a confirmation.  As we talked, in my mind’s eye, I could see this sensitivity expressed in his slumped shoulders when he begrudgingly practiced piano, or in his lack of interest in practicing sports; actually, in a general lack of enthusiasm.  So, as we continued talking about it, I asked him how he feels when he is criticized, and I’ll never forget his answer – “Small.”

From there, we had a good conversation that included me telling him that I also feel small when I’m criticized.  I told him that I never want to make him feel small, but rather so big that he can dream and reach his dreams.  Implicit and explicit in our talk was an apology for allowing him to feel that way.  And so we struck a deal: I’ll be careful not to criticize; he’ll work not to receive things as criticism; and he’ll work to not criticize others (something I had noticed him doing a lot more).

I’m happy to say that a lot has changed since that day – in both of us.  I’m very conscious of talking about the many good things he does instead of taking them for granted, and I’m also working hard to call attention to the one time he does something right instead of the nine other times he might do it wrong.  “Thanks for hanging up your towel after your shower.  Did you notice how it dries so much faster and the bathroom looks nicer?”  “I appreciate it when you take your plate to the sink after dinner; it helps me to get done faster.”

He has responded to our talk and the change in my behavior amazingly quickly.  His demeanor has returned to the happy, fun, kind eight year old that was too often being hidden.  The thing I’ve enjoyed the most, though, perhaps because of its subtlety, is this: he’s playing piano without being asked, and his back is straight as he does!

As I told this story to a group of close friends, one shared another in return.  It was about a couple that parented and coached three Olympic athletes (sorry, I can’t remember the sport).  Their approach to coaching was simple: every time one of their children came off of the field, they isolated one thing that he/she did well and talked about it.  By focusing on the positive, the parents enabled the kids to replay – and reinforce – what was right rather than causing them to replay the mistakes.  I think that’s a smart approach.  And who among us likes being criticized anyway?

Seth Godin, in his book, Tribes, states that people fear criticism far more than they fear failure.  In my experience, he’s right.  Have you ever felt crippled by criticism or the prospect of criticism?  God help me that I not do that to anyone ever again!