One of the most precious gifts we can give is the gift of affirmation. Time and time again I have seen the effects of positive affirmation in the lives of people and, of course, I have seen the opposite: the lasting negative effects of those for whom the positive word was never uttered. If we are honest with ourselves, who among us hasn’t hungered to hear the words, “I’m proud of you.”

I think of poor Esau — that biblical character who was cheated out of his birthright by his clever brother, Jacob. This blessing from his father was rightly Esau’s as the older twin. One of the saddest questions I know is the plaintive words of Esau, “Father, don’t you have another blessing for me?” He never received that blessing, for there was only one to give. Such withheld blessings are one of life’s great tragedies.

Family therapists call such withheld blessings “destructive entitlement.” Not receiving what was rightly ours, that empty space can become destructive to our future personalities. Blessings withheld can be a great burden.

Knowing that many parents will read this column, I ask you to think about giving this gift freely to your children, because they are hungry for it. Few of us ever realize the extent to which our children — whatever their age — treasure a positive word from us.

I know that even my adult children want to know that their dad loves them, values them and is proud of them. Certainly I have spent a lot of time correcting them, for some correction is required for responsible parenthood, but have I balanced my criticism with generous words of praise?

Someone has said that we should counter every critical word with three words of affirmation. That’s a good formula to keep in mind as we seek to guide those who listen to our words more than we might guess.

There is a caveat, however — that how we give praise is important. In their book, “NurtureShock,” Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman cite a decade of research that points to the right, and the wrong, kinds of praise. As parents, many of us have a tendency to tell our kids, “You’re so smart,” as if our encouragement will remain an angel on their shoulders to remind them to excel. Actually, they found that this only places pressure upon them to succeed. They even will choose lesser challenges so that they succeed and prove us right.

The right kind of praise, they write, is based on actual performance: If they succeed, “You really did a good job.” When they try but fail, “You really worked hard.” The research showed that children given affirmations on performance actually relished bigger challenges because they were praised for good effort — a rather fascinating distinction.

In any case, I pray that I choose my words wisely and give the gift of affirmation generously. I want my kids (and now my grandkids) to know that I think they’re the best things since sliced bread.


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