How to Notice the Good in Children

“Affirming words from moms and dads are like light switches. Speak a word of affirmation at the right moment in a child’s life and it’s like lighting up a whole roomful of possibilities.” -Gary Smalley

Although it is not easy to admit, I used to criticize my children under the guise of “good intentions.” Whether it was poor posture, unmannerly eating habits, improper grooming, uncoordinated outfits, or a less-than-desired performance in sports or music, I felt the need to constantly correct. I justified the criticism by saying it would help them be more likable … or more successful … or more self-confident. But truthfully, it was all about me. I was concerned about how my children’s behavior or appearance was going to reflect on me. I pushed for perfection because I was overly concerned about what other people were going to think of me, not them.

But that all changed the day my younger daughter laid down her ukulele in the middle of a practice session. After much parental scrutiny and disapproval for the way she was playing, she just stopped. As if surrendering to a battle she could never win, my child said seven words I won’t forget as long as I live. “I just want to be good, Mama.”

I just want to be good.

My child, who had a genuine talent for playing the ukulele and an inherent love of singing, thought she was no good. And it was because of me—my critical words, my constant suggestions, and my disapproving looks.

My child’s painful words revealed the destructive nature of criticism. Immediately, I thought of other instances when being overly critical caused regression, not improvement in my children. It became clear to me that constant corrections were not helping my children become more successful or more productive. Being critical was hindering my children’s gifts and causing them to be unsure of their abilities. Criticism was diminishing their unique lights that made them who they are.

Instead, I wanted to Notice the Good.

I went down to the basement and dug through my stored teacher supplies. For nine years, I taught children with behavior problems and learning disabilities. There were many negative behaviors and mistakes I could have been critical of, but I wasn’t. I strived to find at least one strength and one positive in each student everyday, and then I would focus and build on that.

I dug through my teacher supplies until I found what I was looking for: The Warm Fuzzy Jar. There was a large crack on the side from one of our many moves as a family. I quickly decided I didn’t have to use this particular jar—just as this strategy for noticing positive behavior wasn’t just for classrooms!

I went to the kitchen and found a large pickle jar and filled it with the colorful pom-pom balls. Then I set two smaller jars beside it on the kitchen counter. Within minutes, my children noticed the jars and inquired about them.

“This is The Warm Fuzzy Jar,” I explained. “Whenever you do something helpful or kind, you place a pom-pom ball in your designated jar because kind and helpful acts make people feel good, like a warm fuzzy.” The girls looked at each other with wide eyes and big smiles, so I continued. “And if you are doing something helpful together or just getting along nicely, you can put two pom-poms in your designated jar. And when your jar becomes full, you can choose something special for you and I to do together.”

warm fuzzy jar

My children had the same reaction as my former students did to filling The Warm Fuzzy jar—pure enthusiasm. They wasted no time being helpful.

They carried in groceries that I typically brought in by myself.

They put away shoes in the hallway that they used to step over for days.

They made their beds in the morning without being told … dirty clothes actually made it to the hamper without my help … dishes made it to the sink (and even got rinsed) with helpful smiles … musical instruments got played without reminders to practice.

There were even a few shockers like a surprise organization of my spice rack and a super clean toilet bowl. But that wasn’t all. The Warm Fuzzy Jar changed the atmosphere of our home. Cooperation and kindness seems to lighten everyone’s moods—most notably mine.

I noticed that she dressed herself and hung the discarded clothes back on hangers—not that the striped socks didn’t match the plaid skirt.

I noticed that she was helping her sister write sentences—not that the Sharpie she was using was turning her fingers black.

I noticed that she prepared a healthy breakfast of cereal and cantaloupe—not the trail of milk that went all the way from the counter to the kitchen table.

I noticed that she helped her sister do her hair—not the twelve barrettes that were secured haphazardly to the back of her head.

I was Noticing the Good, and it was making a huge difference in our day-to-day interactions and my children’s overall wellbeing.

After the jar worked its magic for a couple months, I put it away so the novelty would not wear off. As a recent holiday break from school approached, I decided it was the perfect time to get the jar out again. In preparation for The Warm Fuzzy Jar return, I set the items on the kitchen counter.

“The happy jars!” my younger child shouted when she saw the jars and pom-poms on the counter. “When can we start filling them?” she asked excitedly.

warm fuzzy jar

I shrugged, “Well, I was going to wait until holiday break, but you can start today, if you’d like.”

Both girls went right into action, and so did I—the children were “doing good” and I was “noticing good.” Once again, the powerful awareness lightened the entire atmosphere of our home and made us all more helpful and kind.

Yesterday, I noticed the girls’ jars are already half full. Suddenly it occurred to me that the children hadn’t even declared what they would be earning when they filled their jar.

To me, that fact speaks volumes.

When it comes to positive affirmation—the prize doesn’t matter.

Because being affirmed is the prize.

Because having someone notice and celebrate your good work is the prize.

Because seeing the smile on your parent’s face because of something you did is the prize.

But wait. Here’s the real prize …

When you fill up a child, her eyes become brighter. Her head is held higher. Her dreams come closer.

And suddenly, life is full of possibilities for the most precious prize of all: your child.

Rachel Macy Stafford is a certified special education teacher with a Master’s Degree in education and ten years of experience working with parents and children. In December 2010, this life-long writer felt compelled to share her journey to let go of distraction and grasp what really matters by creating the blog “Hands Free Mama.” Rachel’s work has been featured in USA Today, TIME.com, MSN.com, PBS.org, The Huffington Post, and Reader’s Digest. Her first book, Hands Free Mama, is currently available for pre-order and hits shelves on January 7th.