Dr. Greene's Answer
It’s clear that you are pleased with your son. My guess is, your father was pleased with you, too. Perhaps he just didn’t know how to express his pride in a way that “got through.” Knowing when and how to express your pleasure with your child can help him to become a mature, healthy, independent, successful adult.
Taking pride in our own accomplishments or those of our children is a healthy thing. Requiring ourselves or our children to continually accomplish things is not healthy. You need to express your pleasure with your son on an ongoing basis and to tell him you are proud of him at specific times.
There are several key times to express to your child that you are proud of him. First, whenever you see your son stick out his chest, swollen with pride in his own accomplishment, you should join him in celebrating. It doesn’t matter whether the accomplishment seems significant to you or not — what counts is that he does. You can be proud that he has achieved his own goals. When you see his self-satisfaction, point out to him that he must be very proud of himself. Then tell him how proud you are of him. When he counts to three for the first time, he will probably be very excited — “Wow, you counted to three! You sure are learning. You must feel very proud of yourself. I’m proud of you, too! You’re really doing great!”
There will be other times when your son has accomplished something, but is not sure of himself. In those times, he will probably look to others for affirmation. Many children experience this when they are experimenting with art. They aren’t sure if it is “good” or not. They look to others to find out if they are okay. When your son begins to “color”, you probably won’t even know what it is he is trying to draw. When he brings you something that he has created, the best thing to do is to describe what you see, in a warm, appreciative voice. Include specifics, such as, “I especially like the colors you decided to use.” Listen eagerly if he begins to talk about it also. When he is done, you don’t need to critique the drawing. You can simply say, “You are really learning to express yourself with your art. I love it.”
Perhaps the most crucial situation in which you need to tell your son that you are proud of him is when he feels like a failure. Undoubtedly your son will have many “failures” before he masters using the potty every time he needs to. Children often feel like failures. The most important time to tell your son that you are proud of him is when you see him deflated over his lack of accomplishment. Describe positive character traits that you see. Again, be specific — “I know you really wanted to make it to the potty. And I’m proud of you for trying. You could have kept on playing, but as soon as you realized you needed to go, you ran to the potty. You make me so proud and happy. I love you!” Praise for positive character traits does more to build a child’s healthy self-esteem than praise for what you perceive as accomplishments.
Always pay attention to your son’s cues. When he went on the potty but was reluctant to celebrate, he probably felt that this first time was an accident and was scared of not being able to repeat the performance. Your husband may have noticed a valuable cue. At times like this, it is best to express your pleasure and confidence in a matter-of-fact way, and then turn your attention to the book that he is excited about.
To build self-esteem, children (and adults) need symbols of their accomplishments. Consider starting a tradition of celebrating your son’s “firsts.” Get a special object like a dinner plate with “I did it!” imprinted on it. Let that be your son’s special plate, for use on days when he does something for the first time. (The plate can also be used as a signal that the conversation at the dinner table needs to include a recounting of his accomplishment!)
Another excellent habit to get into is taking pictures that depict each accomplishment or achievement. Be sure and take a picture of your son riding his bike on the first day he manages to balance it all by himself. Keep copies of those”special achievement” pictures in a separate album. Whenever your son is feeling especially low, pull out the album, sit down together, and tell the story of each accomplishment, taking time to remind him how proud you are of all the things he has done. Before long, he will be able to see his current situation in light of the many great things he has done, and he will know that you are proud of him.
Children need to try new things in order to grow. Growing is exciting, but trying new things includes risking failure. Learning to deal with success and failure are both parts of the process of growing up. If your son really knows how proud you are of him, whether he succeeds or fails, he will be much more likely to try new things and he will be well on his way to success in life.
In the meantime, remember that just as your son doesn’t have to be the perfect child, you don’t have to be a perfect mother. We parents can’t always get it right. Occasional instances of over-praising your child when he wasn’t ready for it will not hurt his social development. What’s important is the overall tone of the parent-child relationship. It’s clear from your question that you are a caring, positive mother who wants to become more and more successful in raising your child. Your son isn’t the only one who deserves praise! The pee-pee episode can simply serve as a learning experience for you — a chance to fine-tune your parenting skills. In this situation, as in so many others in family life, not only the children but also the adults have the opportunity to learn from their own imperfections. Each member of the family has the opportunity to grow in respectful, patient compassion towards the others — and towards him- or herself.