Every night, before my kids drift off, I lie down with each of them for three minutes. They look forward to this sacred time, the opportunity to have my undivided attention, the physical closeness, that cradles them into sleep. Sometimes we talk about the day, play a game or read together, but other times, I mistakenly use it to rehash what I thought was a valuable lesson about correcting a behavior that day.
“Did you come here to scold me?” my daughter asked one evening, turning away from me as we lay together under her purple and white duvet, visibly upset. I was on a tirade of trying to reinforce why some language is disrespectful, because I figured she was calmer then, and would be more receptive to my criticism. Turns out, human beings are never really welcoming to criticism. “Can’t we just do something fun?” And I guiltily realized how far away I’d moved from the purpose of these few minutes together. I was pushing her away, making sleep more difficult and unwelcoming by infusing her mind with thoughts of self-loathing and disappointment, instead of allowing her to enter into dreams replaying positive memories of the day. We switched gears and played a drawing game together.
In the summer, I bought for each of my kids a small notebook to keep by their bedsides because I felt they were becoming habitual complainers, always seeing what they didn’t have and not what they did. Each night, they were obligated to write three good things about the day in their “gratuity books.” Not to incriminate all of my kids, because some actually complained less than others, but I thought it would be a good habit to develop, even for those who were innately more positive. At first, it seemed like a chore for some kids, and I received generic, unthoughtful answers, like “Oxygen,” or anything that had as few letters as possible, because obviously writing was too laborious. But then I probed deeper with them, and they opened up more about the things they cherished, especially if I offered to do the physical act of writing for them. I told them that whenever they felt unlucky or unhappy, they could revisit the book and see all of the great things they had that summer, all of the blessings they had received, and it would cheer them up. The book would also serve as a wonderful journal of beautiful summer memories.
With the onset of the school year and the dolor of nightly homework and early morning wakings, I sometimes had moments where I felt like I wasn’t loving enough. It seemed as if I were constantly scolding or criticizing the children, and had no breath left for laughing or praise. I was annoying, always trying to help them grow and actualize their potential. Who would want to live with me as a mother? Or at all? I didn’t really like myself in disciplinarian mode. That’s when I realized that I needed to make a change. I needed to see my kids as wholesome and good, and not as a summary of not making a bed, leaving messy homework on the kitchen counter and refusing to take a jacket in the dead of winter. Not the kid who disappointed me by failing a test or arguing with a classmate too much in class. Not as the one who cried because her teacher criticized her, and I wished she were tougher than sheets of tissue paper. I wanted to be proud. And I wanted them to know my praise. I went out and bought gratuity books for each of them, again.
It was as much for me as it was for them. I aspired to be positive, and to search out and highlight moments of achievement for my kids throughout the day, instead of only their failings. They deserved to have a mother who recognized the latent good, who could label them as something positive instead of always negative. And so, every night, during our “resting time,” I’d write something I was grateful for about each child on one page, and on the other, that child would have to write something he appreciated as well. But it wasn’t just, “I loved your outfit today.” I forced myself to see actions big or small, and tie them into larger personality traits. “You held open the door for a policeman at Dunkin’ Donuts today, instead of just walking through! This shows what a thoughtful person you are.” Or even, “You put all of your laundry in the hamper tonight—I see you really care about your belongings and keeping the house clean.” I wanted my kids to think of themselves as kind, caring, helpful, instead of just as kids who didn’t always try hard enough, or who fought with each other, which tends to capture the majority of my attention.
I also like to think that many years from now, when I’m gone, my children will have this book of loving gestures to revisit and might remember me as someone who tried in every way to help them grow to be the best version of themselves they could be, someone who felt pride in the smallest or biggest of actions, and let them shine with their new medals.
Some nights it’s hard to find something to say, particularly if I am angry, or if a kid wasted much of our time together being disrespectful or tantruming, two things I have little patience for. Those evenings, I will try to force myself to think of something, and the very action of racking my brain and writing something nice, and then reading it out loud, somehow lessens my frustrations and annoyances, and I start to reconnect with that child. There are also Friday nights, when we don’t write, and so I like to assume I’m off the hook.
“Mommy, can you please tell me something good about myself, and we’ll write it tomorrow?” my son asks, in the darkness of his room, curled up against my arm on a Friday evening. I look down, and sigh. They are hungry to hear nice things about themselves. They wait for it, hands out, like a puppy looking for a treat to reinforce good behavior. These are our praises, our words. The delicacies of life, but also their nourishment, forever archived in their notebooks, the last things they hear at night before they drift off to sleep.
By Sarah Abenaim