Nicky & Sila Lee, authors of The Marriage Book, have written a book on parenting with illustrations by artist Charlie Mackesy. Here is a selection of extracts...
Our impact as parents
As parents we can say things to our children that will affect how they think about themselves for the rest of their lives. A newspaper article about the actress Dawn French included this description of her upbringing:
When Dawn French was fourteen years old, overweight and about to go to her first disco, her late father sat her down for a talk. She was expecting the usual father/daughter stuff about boys with high testosterone levels and what time she should be home.
He did spell out what he would do to any over-enthusiastic lad who dared lay a finger on the young Dawn. But it was what he said next that had such a lasting effect on her life.
He told her that she was uncommonly beautiful, the most precious thing in his life, that he prized her above everything and was proud to be her father.
No father could have given his daughter a more valuable start in life. Instead of approaching adolescence as the short, fat girl, who couldn’t get a boyfriend, Dawn was secure in the knowledge that she was loved for who she was, not for what she looked like.
That confidence has remained throughout her adult life. And, yes, she is uncommonly beautiful. It is a soft, warm beauty enhanced by a ready, generous smile.
‘How wise of my father to say that,’ she reflects. ‘It affected my whole life. How could you not come out of it well-equipped to deal with life, when you felt so loved and supported?’
Our words also have the power to crush. A friend of ours played the piano as a child until one day her grandmother said to her, ‘What an awful noise! You’ll never learn to play well.’ So she stopped permanently.
The way we talk to our children can become a habit – for good or bad. We can easily become fixated on our child’s failures, mediocrity or irritating behaviour.
We go on… and on… and on about these, instead of seeing his uniqueness and good points. In fact, such criticism may well spring from our own problems – from what is going on inside us.
We are feeling stressed. We are feeling inadequate. We are desperate for others to be impressed by our children. But if we only speak negative, critical words to them, they will grow up feeling insecure.
The psychologist Professor John Gottman asserts that, for every one critical comment from their parents, children need at least five positive comments.
One mother, with two children under five, said to us, ‘The hour before bedtime is the hardest time to remain positive.
The house looks like a bomb site, the children are tired and petulant, the chores seem endless, I feel a wreck, and to top it all we have some people arriving for supper at eight o’clock!
It’s so easy to be sharp and to say: “Why on earth can’t you undress more quickly?” or, “I’ve had enough of your messing around – you’re hopeless,” and other such comments which I regret later when I look at their little faces all snuggled up and sleeping peacefully. ‘It took me two years to realise that, if I started bedtime routines half an hour earlier, I would be less hassled and would end up being less critical.’
We will look at four ways we can use words positively to keep filling up our children’s emotional tank to ensure they feel loved.
1. Words of affection
Expressing our love
The three words ‘I love you’ have great power. John, now in his twenties, said, ‘I cannot remember ever hearing my parents say that, or any other affectionate words to me throughout my childhood. It left me feeling very alone and insecure.’ He is still waiting to hear those three words.
Parents need to speak frequently of their love from the earliest months of their children’s lives all the way through the teenage years.
The words, ‘I love you,’ might be part of the bedtime ritual when they are younger or the last words spoken to older children before they leave for school. They might be sent by text or written in a letter for a child to keep and read over again.
Teenagers long to hear their parents speak these three words to them more than their parents usually realise.
As they pass through adolescence they are besieged by questions about their identity and value. They are undermined by their own unfavourable comparisons with their friends and siblings.
But hearing they are loved can help provide the security and self-worth they need to carry them through.
Phrases like, ‘I love being with you,’ ‘I love playing with you,’ ‘I really enjoy talking to you,’ ‘I like watching you draw/seeing you play hockey/watching the way you play with your little brother,’ ‘You’re wonderful,’ ‘You’re so funny,’ ‘You’re great fun,’ should become part of our regular vocabulary to express our affection.
Saying what is best for our child
It is important that we say these words of affection for our child’s sake, not ours, as otherwise they can be used to manipulate. ‘I love you. Do you love me?’ is more about meeting a parent’s emotional needs than the child’s.
A friend said to us, ‘I know my dad loved me, but he only ever said the words, “I love you,” when I was supporting him through a crisis. It felt conditional. The more worthy deeds I did, the more I felt his approval.’
We may have to think about what will be of most comfort to a young child in the moment of being separated from us.
To say, ‘I love you,’ when we are prising her off our shoulder to put her into school could make separation harder. Equally to shout, ‘I love you,’ to an eight-year-old from the touchline is likely to be counterproductive. A timely wink might mean the same thing and not be embarrassing.
Learning to express affection
Some parents find it difficult to express their love in words, particularly if, during their upbringing they did not hear affectionate words being spoken in their family.
The book, Guess how much I love you can provide a springboard for parents of little children to start to articulate their thoughts.2 Breaking the sound barrier is usually the hardest part. Once we become used to hearing ourselves speaking affectionately, we will find it gets easier and easier.
2. Words of comfort
One seventeen-year-old boy was asked how he knew his parents loved him when he was a young child. He said: ‘They told me they loved me, allowed me to sleep in their bedroom when I was scared and comforted me. I remember Dad always said, “It’s all right,” when I cried or had a nightmare.’
There will be moments in our children’s lives when they are frightened, worried, confused or do not understand what is happening to them.
At such times our words can reassure and comfort them at a deep level. What we say is likely to stick in their memory and be a help to them years later when they are lonely or worried.
3. Words of praise
Looking out for opportunities
Steve Chalke, author of How to Succeed as a Parent, writes, ‘The golden rule is this: catch your kids red-handed doing something right and praise them for it.’
A friend of ours who teaches children aged six to eleven commented, ‘As any primary school teacher will tell you, praise is the only sustainable strategy for managing behaviour and encouraging hard work in a class of thirty children.’
In a family with more than one child, praising the child who is behaving well, rather than telling off the one who is misbehaving, is a powerful means of encouraging good behaviour, particularly if the misbehaviour might be attention-seeking.
Carefully chosen words of praise do much to build the relationship between parent and child. We have some friends with two sons, both mad keen on football.
Having played football himself, the father watches every move of their weekend games with avid interest. If one of them loses a match badly and comes home in the evening discouraged, the father tells him what a brilliant tackle he did five minutes into the second half.
The boy’s mood begins to change and father and son then spend the next ten minutes to an hour happily analysing the whole game.
It is worth considering whether we are praising our children equally. A friend of ours with an older brother felt that his brother got eighty per cent of his parents’ praise. This was very hurtful.
Praising a child’s character
To counterbalance our celebrity culture, which defines success in terms of looks, fame or income, it is important to look out for the positive qualities of each child’s character.
In doing so, we encourage the values we care about most. We might praise them for their generosity in sharing their possessions; for playing nicely with a friend; for looking after a sibling; or for their ability to cope in a difficult situation.
One mother noticed how good her six-year-old son was at making friends with lonely children in the playground.
She commended him and then asked him why he did it. He replied, ‘They need my help.’ Her praise reinforced his kindness. Not only will our children thrive on this sort of encouragement, but they will take on the role of being encouragers themselves.
Our aim is to commend our children more often than we criticise them.
One father told us, ‘I take our oldest child to school in the morning on the back of my scooter and every day I try to tell her one thing she is good at.’
But what if our children do not seem to excel in any arena? They are not athletic; they struggle with school work; and they have neither musical nor dramatic gifts.
In this case our words of praise will be even more important as our child is unlikely to be hearing them elsewhere. That does not mean using false flattery. That will make our children trust our words less.
We must be honest in our praise.
We need to look for those achievements that no one else will notice. For younger children this might mean congratulating them for dressing themselves: ‘That was really clever putting your shirt on this morning, Tom,’ even if some of the other clothes are on back to front.
We can encourage them as we watch them forming the letters of their name: ‘You wrote those letters so carefully,’ even if they are several months behind their peers.
We can congratulate them for brushing their teeth or tidying their bedroom, even if we have just asked them to do it.
Or we might be able to say, ‘That was really generous of you to share your new toy with John.’
To an older child, we might say: ‘Well done! You are really persisting with your maths,’ even if the rest of their school work leaves a lot to be desired.
‘Thank you for not slamming the door when you left this morning,’ particularly if we talked to them about it the day before. ‘You were a real help at lunch today.’
‘Thank you so much for staying and chatting to Grandpa – he really enjoyed it.’ ‘Well done for helping to clear up the garden.’ Or, as part of a conversation over a meal, ‘These muffins are delicious,’ if our child baked them.
These attempts at encourage-ment may at first sound contrived or insincere to our ears; but as we practise praising our children, they will become more and more natural.
4. Words of affirmation
Showing our pride
Our children may be teased, bullied, come bottom of the class, face disappointment and occasionally even wonder if they are worth anything to anybody. As parents we are in the best position to convince them that they are full of potential and have a unique contribution to make.
We can assure them that we believe in them and value them.
During the final of the television competition, Pop Idol, the mother of Will Young was interviewed. ‘You must be so proud of him tonight,’ said the reporter. ‘Oh! I was proud of him a long time before tonight,’ she replied. ‘He doesn’t have to sing to make me proud of him.’
Some of us are hugely ambitious for our children. We are determined to help them overcome their flaws and improve their performance.
The result is that we focus on their weaknesses more than on their strengths. This is short-sighted. Children who are confident of their parents’ love have a secure base upon which to build their future.
Talking in their hearing
Speaking about our children in front of them will affect how they think about themselves.
‘She’s a complete nightmare.’ ‘I am finding it so tedious being at home with him.’ ‘She’s so naughty!’ ‘He drives me up the wall! I’ll tell you what he did the other day…’
We have all heard parents talking disparagingly in their children’s hearing. They forget that their children are absorbing every word.
A child may not react outwardly, especially when very young, but will take on board all that is said.
Conversely, when a parent tells a grandparent or a godparent in the child’s hearing a story about their child’s kindness or thought-fulness (avoid telling friends, as parents who show off are tiresome), it makes her feel valued.
We may hold back from praising our children for fear of spoiling them. But children are not spoilt through praise, but through a lack of discipline and through being allowed to do whatever they like.
Affirming their looks
Affirming our children’s physical appearance from birth helps them to stop comparing themselves unfavourably with others, particularly during their teenage years.
One woman told us how her mother would say to her every time she brushed her red hair, ‘What beautiful hair you have! What beautiful hair!’ Despite always standing out from others, she never doubted as she grew up that the colour of her hair was an asset to her.
In affirming their looks, we are helping them to distinguish between what they can change and what they cannot.
So we might well encourage children to wash their hair, or provide a diet that will help them stay in shape, or ensure they are getting enough exercise, whilst recognising that different children have a different build and we are not expecting them to look like a supermodel.
Our aim is to help them to look their best while being confident in the natural shape of their own body.
In a culture obsessed with physical looks, focusing too much on their appearance will be unhelpful to them. Our aim is to assure them that we love them for who they are, with their own unique attributes.
Rob Parsons writes, ‘The other day, my wife Dianne complimented a teenager on her new outfit. The girl smiled, but her mother poked a finger at her tummy and said,
“It’ll look even better when she does something about that.” Of course a parent will want to help a child who is seriously overweight or has a bad attack of acne, but somehow at the same time, we have to let our children know that we love them anyway.
That involves us being manifestly proud of them when they are at their gawkiest, and especially if their features don’t happen to fit in with what society at present considers “attractive.”’
Words of affection, comfort, praise and affirmation make a deep and life-changing impact on our children. They need us to tell them how much we love them, not only when they please us but also when they least expect it.
Speaking like this requires unselfishness on our part. We have to put aside our own agenda, our tiredness, our frustration with the messy bedroom, our disappointment at the terrible report,
in order to take the time to think of something kind and positive to say. We will have to bite our tongue at times; but we will be astonished at the difference that a little encouragement can make to our child. Speaking this language of love will fill up the emotional tank inside.
Pause and consider
- Try counting the number of positive and negative comments you make to your children today. Is the ratio at least 5:1 (positive to negative)?
- What type of loving, encouraging words do you find the hardest to say?
- Are you aware of any pattern of critical words you want to change?
- Think of three characteristics or attributes in each of your children that you would like to affirm this week.
Establishing healthy routines
Sitting around a table on a regular basis is one of the most beneficial activities for children. This may be the only time a family is together.
Eating together at least once a day has been part of family life in almost every culture, until the second half of the twentieth century in the West.
Longer working hours have meant one or both parents may not be at home to eat with their children during the week.
With the advent of the TV, families began to sit passively in a semi-circle, being entertained rather than attempting to make conversation with each other.
Fast food and microwaves mean family members can eat separately at different times.
Now in the UK, with eighty per cent of children aged five to sixteen having a TV in their own room, arguing about which channel to watch is a thing of the past.
Homes today are being built without a space for a family dining table. But healthy family life thrives on eating together.
Children learn (eventually!) to eat what is put in front of them, rather than each choosing their own food, and are more likely to have a balanced diet. They learn table manners.
When they are old enough, they are expected to take a share in the preparation and the clearing up.
All of these routines, reinforced day by day, teach them that they are part of a family; that they are a valued member, but not the centre; that their views will be heard, just as they are expected to listen to others; that they have a contribution to make, and so does everyone else.
Of course children will grumble, refuse to eat the food, or throw it on the floor. They will forget to say thank you, or seem incapable of staying on their chair for more than thirty seconds – in some cases, well into their teenage years!
We may feel we have reminded them every day for years to offer the tomato ketchup before helping themselves, and they still forget.
Mealtimes can be a battleground and sometimes we feel as if we are losing the war. But they are a vital, regular social activity that prepares children for just about every other type of social activity.
We neglect family meals at the risk of failing to socialise our children effectively. And, if we persevere, eventually we will see the benefits of eating regularly together.
For some families, the weekends are the only time for regular family meals.
One father we know, who could not be home early enough during the week to eat with the children, made lunch at the weekend fun by initiating games at the table, such as challenging each family member to talk on a favourite topic for one minute without hesitation or repetition.
With a sullen teenager, encouraging conversation might involve asking each person to describe their best and worst moments of the day or week.
The chef and restaurateur, Raymond Blanc, wrote of the value of family mealtimes in a newspaper article, called ‘Let’s eat en famille!’:
To cook for family and friends is an act of love that binds together all who share it. But in Britain, we are cooking and eating together less – and this frightens me.
A family that eats together is more likely to be a kind, close family whose children will grow up to be kind and considerate …
But the child, who grows up knowing nothing of these mealtime disciplines, will grow up respecting neither good food nor other people, and will almost certainly have limited communication skills.
The strange mystery of my list of rules
Nicky: When our children were all under eleven, I bought a new computer. I decided I would do an A4 page of rules for our home.
I was so pleased with my handiwork that I not only included well-recognised boundaries for the children’s behaviour, but I found myself adding a number of new ones that I knew would make the household work like clockwork from then on. Mealtimes would be transformed with punctual and well-dressed children; arguments about bedtimes would be a thing of the past; bedrooms would be ready for inspection by any unexpected visitor.
I presented this impressive list at the next family meal and carefully took them through the various points. I was, I confess, a little disappointed by their cool response. I had expected to be congratulated for the presentation and for the clarification of the house rules. I put the silence down to thoughtfulness.
I announced that the list would be pinned inside the cupboard at the top of the stairs for easy reference (I did not want to embarrass anyone by displaying it publicly) and I put it up that evening.
A week later I had some reason to go to the cupboard. Not a sign of my list remained. I do not know to this day whether it was one child or all four working together who quietly removed it. I also came to see that children do not respond well to lists of rules, however well presented.