Talking about your kids to other people lets them "overhear" what you think about them

I recount for my kids at dinner every day the stories I tell other people about them. "I brag about you guys all the time, and I tell my friends and co-workers how wonderful and smart you are." I say. Usually, when I say this my kids smile and seem to sit up a little straighter. But one day, John asked worriedly, "Mom, do you think it's such a good idea to talk about us like that so much? Do you think it might make other people feel bad if they don't have great kids like us?" I had to stop and think about it for a moment. Should I worry about that? I shrugged and replied, "I think most people understand that when you have something wonderful in your life, you can't help talking about it." He seemed satisfied with that response, and continued eating his dinner -- after he sat up a little straighter.

So, at this point, I think I should stop and say a sincere "I'm sorry and thank you!" to all the Facebook friends and family who have tolerated my bragging about my kids and have even joined in by sending congratulations, hearts, thumbs up and smiling faces. You were all a part of a strategic effort aimed, not at you but at my children, and I admit that I use you all shamelessly. You see, when my twins, Timothy and Tyler were about eight years old, they came home from school and said, "Mommy, how come you say we're wonderful and we're great, and then we go to school and we don't think the adults there think we are so great?" And their words broke my heart. I don't think anyone stood up and told my little Black boys that they were less valuable than anyone else. But somehow they got that message loud and clear, and it deeply troubled them. I resolved that every day I would pour back into my kids messages that counter the ones they get at school, in the media, and out and about in the community. If I could, I would paint in huge black letters on my house's white siding, "You are great, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise!" But, realizing my neighbors might not appreciate this, I decided to look for other ways to tell my kids every day about their inherent greatness. So I let them overhear me "gossiping" about them.

Research suggests that parental messages play a critical role in African-American youth development, and this is particularly the case with boys. Black boys who receive consistent affirmations about their self-worth are more academically self-motivated and successful. But how many times can you tell your kids how wonderful they are? The answer is: every opportunity you get. And the more they hear it when they are least expecting it, the better. Gossiping, or talking about them to others, is a great way to do it. Let your kids overhear you talking on the phone about the really thoughtful questions they ask. They will ask even more thoughtful questions. Whisper to your friends as your kids walk past about they ways in which you have seen them operate with integrity. They will show even more integrity. Post on Facebook something really creative they did. They will express their creativity even more.

The result of this gossiping is that you create a self-fulfilling prophecy for your kids' lives. The people around you will instinctively treat them as more valuable and worthy simply because you do. Your kids will recognize when they are held in high esteem, in the same way they recognize when they are not. Your actions will counter the negative messages they get everyday and, ultimately, your opinion will be more valuable.

Gossiping about your kids requires a plan. Here are some things to consider:

  1. You need to really know your kids, and get in touch with their unique characteristics, values and habits. You don't want to just tell your kids they are great, you want to tell them how and why they are great. That way, you are highlighting the attitudes and behaviors you want to encourage and promote.

  2. Focus particularly on areas in which your kids may have struggled and had a success. For example, my daughter's first year of high school was really tough, but she began to figure things out by tenth grade. I spent a lot of time bragging about how determined she had been to overcome her challenges, and how much I admired her strength of character during that difficult time. It is important to teach kids that when you work through a challenge to achieve success, you should celebrate the victory and apply lessons learned to the next challenge.

  3. Focus on things your kids can change. Don't talk about their looks or their intellect. Instead, talk about the creativity with which they choose their outfits, the resilience they show in the face of challenges, or the kindness with which they helped a troubled classmate.

  4. Always be truthful. Kids know what they did well and what they did not, and they can spot inauthenticity a mile away. Find even the smallest thing to brag about. Perhaps it is that your child was particularly helpful with chores after dinner. Perhaps it is that your teenager showed great trustworthiness by texting to check in when she got to the movies with her friends. Tell anyone who will listen about it, and how you felt about it (proud, relieved, thankful, etc.).

  5. Enlist willing accomplices. Grandparents and extended family are great candidates, because they are often interested in what your kids are doing. Encourage them to mention to your kids the great things you have told them.

  6. Guard your kids from people who will undo all your hard work. I am ruthlessly protective of my kids' sense of self-worth. It is completely appropriate to interrupt friends and family who want to talk about your kids' flaws. There is a time and a place for correcting behavior, but promoting positive behavior is far more effective and can be very powerful in extinguishing negative behaviors.

  7. Most of all, congratulate yourself for the wonderful human being you are raising. Parenting is difficult, so you need all the accolades you can get. You may be very surprised someday to hear your kids gossiping about you.

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Updated: Jul 11, 2018

Your child is half your ex's. He will hear your words about your ex as being at least halfway true about him

It only happened once. Just one time, and it was a good one - the fight. I was furious with my ex for the way he allowed his girlfriend to speak to me when I was picking the kids up from his house. She was rude and disrespectful and seemed to think it was appropriate for her to step into our co-parenting arrangement. And the more he defended her the angrier I became. I was shaking as I yelled that I would never have allowed anyone I was dating to speak to him like that. My voice was almost incoherent and I could barely hold the phone to my ear. It was at least 20 minutes into the conversation before I realized that my usually loud and bustling house was deathly silent. My kids had retreated into their rooms in response to my yelling. It was like a bucket of cold water. What must they be thinking? I promised myself that they would never see me like that again -- ever. And they didn't.

Single parenting is overwhelming. The stress, the finances, the worries about the future, and the day to day grind all take their toll. In addition, for many single parents, this was not how we planned to raise our kids, and the ever-present grief, anger, disappointment and shame at how things worked out can show up as anger toward our child's other parent. If the other parent is uncooperative, or if there is conflict around money, custody or visitation, it is easy to forget that this was someone we once cared for, and it is easy to now see the other parent as as sum of all his or her flaws - and nothing more. If our child resembles the other parent, we may find ourselves with a daily reminder of everything that went wrong, is going wrong, and could possibly go wrong in the future with that ex.

The problem with seeing your ex as purely a flawed human being is that your child understands pretty quickly that he or she is half your ex's. Even in cases of adoption or same gender unions, where the ex is not biologically related to your child, your child may not have gone through the same process of emotionally separating and distancing that you and your ex did, and still may identify very closely with the other parent. For that reason, however you characterize you ex bears the silent message to your child... "and you are at least half that, too." Half-trifling, half-dishonest, half-lazy, half-....whatever.

Child therapists have found that extreme parental conflict, whether silent or aggressive, often results in child mental health issues and poor parenting practices. So what to do if the ex really is trifling, dishonest and lazy? Should we lie to our kids and pretend everything is perfect? Absolutely not. But every parent is responsible for protecting his or her child's self-esteem or, at the very least, not damaging it. Here are some ways to keep your child healthy and honor your ex - even if he or she does not deserve it:

  1. Make your own peace with the way the relationship turned out. While anger and disappointment may still flare, if years have gone by and you still find these emotions to be constant companions, it's time to get some help. Join a group for single parents or see a therapist. The healthier you are, the healthier your children will be and the better you will parent.

  2. When you need to vent about your ex (and we all need to do this at some point!) find someone besides your child to vent to, and do it out of his earshot. Your child does not need to hear exactly how you feel about your ex. Children eventually form their own opinions of their parents, including you. Take the high road so that your children will not resent you for saying mean things about the other parent.

  3. Try to remember the good things you once saw in your ex. If they don't come easily to you, sit down with paper and pencil and try to recall and write them down. This list is what you will need to call on when you are tired, angry, or frustrated, and all you can think of are the negative traits. Over time, mention these positive traits about the other parent, especially when you see the same traits in your child. Your child needs to know that she has these good traits too. Besides, if your ex is all bad, what does it tell your child about you -- that you got involved with him or her to begin with?

  4. When the other parent is uncooperative, does not follow through or disappoints in any way, talk with your child about the other parent's behavior and not his or her character. For example, you might say, "Your Dad didn't show up today as he promised. I know that was very disappointing. We will have to find out what happened." instead of, "Your father is so inconsiderate and undependable. He never does what he says he will." If your child is angry with the other parent, listen sympathetically, but don't feed the fire -- the tables could turn at any time.

  5. Understand that children will often love parents who do not seem to deserve their love. That's just the way it is. Even if the other parent is not around or was abusive to you or the child, your child may still have strong feelings of love for that parent. Encourage your child to love the other parent, while maintaining realistic expectations for what that parent will or will not do.

  6. Find ways to help your child celebrate the other parent on birthdays, Father's/Mother's Day, etc. Help your child buy or make a gift or a card. Make sure your child calls to send best wishes. Do it even if the other parent does not reciprocate. This teaches your child that it is possible to disagree with someone and yet honor who they are as a person. This will be a valuable lesson later in life, and your child will remember which parent taught it.

  7. If you and your ex are engaged in a legal conflict, explain the legal procedure to your child in an age-appropriate, unemotional, and business-like way. Reassure your child that she is still loved completely by both parents, but that the adults in the situation need to go through this process to come to an agreement. Remind your child of times when she needed someone else to help mediate a disagreement and show her how well conflicts can be settled.

  8. Finally, support your child in navigating life between two parents. This is NOT easy, and children often feel torn and guilty for loving two parents who don't love each other. Don't make your child choose sides. Help him explore his own feelings without your influence. Encourage your child to embrace the best of both sides of him (use that list in #3!) and reassure him that he is 100% wonderful, 100% smart, and 100%...fill in the blanks.

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