A powerful tool for enhancing the parent-child relationship and building self-esteem is to provide children with "recognition" on a regular basis. Recognition can be offered in a variety of ways, however, is particularly effective when given verbally. Howard Glasser has developed four types of verbal recognition that are easy to use and take a minimum of time to employ.
Outlined in his book, Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach (1998), he calls these "active recognition," "experiential recognition," "proactive recognition," and "creative recognition." Building upon each other, these variations of verbal recognition provide children with a sense of being noticed and appreciated which they translate as being cared for and understood. Let me briefly describe them and supply some examples of how to use them.
Active recognition can be compared to offering a verbal snapshot that notices the child's ordinary actions and moods. It is simply describing in detail what you see your child doing or feeling in any given moment. Some examples are as follows:
"I see you are building a house with two windows, a door, and a chimney. It looks strong enough to avoid being blown down by a storm."
"I noticed you were practicing your free throws outside for a long time. You seemed frustrated when you couldn't get the ball to drop in easily."
In each of these examples there is recognition of what is being done - the activity itself and the child's involvement in it. In the second example the recognition extends to how the child is feeling during the course of the action. You'll notice that both statements are fairly detailed and are devoid of any sort of commentary or judgement. Both of these characteristics are very important. The detail lets the child know that you really are paying attention. If you said something more general such as "nice house" or "good free throws," the comments lose their punch. The details let the child know you are observing very carefully what he's doing. The added attention to the feeling or mood communicates deeper attentiveness and caring on your part, as well as understanding. The lack of commentary or judgement allows the statements to stand as they are, simply as recognition. The child feels both noticed and accepted.
Experiential recognition is similar to active recognition in that you again offer verbal recognition of an action. However, this time you also have the added agenda of reinforcing the values and behavioral practices that you wish to instill or enhance in your children. Here are two examples:
"Joey, I noticed that you were really angry at Jeff when he knocked down your legos, but you didn't hit him. You used words to let him know how upset you were. I like the way you controlled yourself."
"I see that for the last ten minutes you concentrated very hard on your math homework. That's a good way to do it. Ten minutes at a time. You're being pretty creative, aren't you?"
There are two important elements in offering experiential recognition. The first is to capture and freeze in time any effort you see that is moving in the direction of a desired value or behavior. In the first example, you are extracting one piece of the activity and focusing on it. In this case, it is the use of verbalization as opposed to physical aggression to deal with anger. Even if the verbalization was somewhat aggressive, you are recognizing progress while also giving the message that anger can be handled verbally. If Joey was verbally aggressive, then at a later time you can discuss with him how to refine the process and use healthier assertive phrases, but for this moment you have helped solidify his move away from physical aggression. The second element that's important is to energize the recognition by using statements such as "I like the way you controlled yourself," or in the second example, "You're being pretty creative, aren't you?" These statements are the icing on the cake. They serve to reinforce the value or behavior, particularly when offered with energy.
Here the goal is to recognize your child's successes at not breaking rules. That might sound like a backdoor method of reinforcing rules and actually it is. Instead of the focus being on following rules, it is on not breaking rules. Implied here is your recognition that the child is struggling with a rule, but has made a choice to follow it rather than break it. Let's look below:
"I see that you didn't want to admit that you didn't turn in all of your homework today at school when I asked you about it, but you decided to tell the truth even though you knew you might be in trouble. I really appreciate your honesty. It let's me know I can trust you."
"I saw you getting ready to go into Ashley's house, but you turned around and came back home to ask permission first. That's good thinking!"
The key in using this technique is to try and catch any opportunity you can to comment on your child's success in sticking with rules. This is particularly helpful when a child has fallen into the pattern of getting into trouble daily. Usually what happens in these cases is that parents find that almost all of their interactions with the child are around issues of discipline, and there emerges a chronic sense of failure on both the parent and child's part. Using every opportunity to recognize even the smallest effort at self-control can assist in turning this pattern around. The goal here is to be sure that the successes outweigh the failures.
This is one of my favorites because it combines recognition with compliance toward parental requests. The idea is to make very simple and clear requests such as "I need for you to hand me that spoon," which happens to be situated easily within the child's reach and requires no planning or movement. Then when the child complies, offer appreciation and recognition. "Thanks for doing that so quickly. It helps me get breakfast ready faster." For kids who have a lot of trouble complying with rules, this technique can be used in ingenious ways to turn the situation around. For example, one parent reported that she literally found things to request that were already in the process of being complied with. As her daughter was on the way to the clothes hamper with shirt in hand, mom said "I need you to put your shirt in the clothes hamper." She then followed up with "Thanks, now I can get that washed for you to wear this week." An added comment might be "It looks like you were reading my mind. Thanks for doing that so cheerfully." The comment regarding "reading my mind" is aimed at directly enhancing the connection between you and your child, while the latter comment reinforces good attitude.
When using creative recognition for kids that have become particularly unruly or non-compliant, begin with very clear and simple requests that contain no opportunities for struggle. Some requests that fall in this category are:
"Please hold this towel for a minute while I rinse the pan."
"I need for you to grab the end of the sheet so we can fold it together."
"I want you to hold the phone a minute while I go back to the other phone."
After each request, follow-up with appreciative statements that comment on the attitude or contribution of the action.
"I love it when you help me with the dishes. It makes it more fun."
"I really appreciate your help with the sheet. It's really hard to fold a big sheet by yourself."
"Thanks for helping me with the phone. You followed my directions perfectly."
Verbal recognition can be used many times every day. It is particularly useful for mending distance between parents and children, as well as for turning around the merry-go-round of chronic misbehavior and overuse of harsh disciplinary strategies. Being noticed and accepted is a strong human need, and parents can positively impact their children by meeting that need regularly. A cautionary word in using the above verbal techniques is to be sure that you are always authentic and energetic in your delivery. If you use these techniques in a perfunctory or patronizing manner, children will pick up on it. Also, these techniques are most effective with younger children. As children move into adolescence, they become skeptical of anything that seems planned or stilted. You can use these techniques with adolescents, but couched more within larger conversations that explore personality characteristics and identity issues. In other words, if you are able to establish a regular method of free verbal interchange with your teen, then recognition is easy to fold in as you make positive observations or help solve problems. Try out the techniques offered here on your younger children at first, and don't give up until you've worked with it for at least three weeks. You should see some positive results.