64. Look at This!

Sometimes, a child may come to you and say, “Look at this!” or “Listen to this!” The child has just created or discovered something. Whatever it is may or may not be amazing or even recognizable to you. I have mostly seen and given three categories of reactions.
The first type of reaction is typical of adults who don’t have time. The adult says, “Nice,” or even, “Beautiful,” with an unimpressed tone of voice that belies “nice” and “beautiful.” Or the adult doesn’t even acknowledge the event. The message to the child is that the creation or discovery, though seeming, at first, to be earth-shaking, is not even worthy of attention, or this particular adult is not interested. Often that adult is an important person in the child’s life (e.g., parent, teacher), and sometimes the effect of the non-interest is devastating.
The second type of reaction is fake, but well-intentioned. The adult, who wants to build up the child’s self-esteem, reacts with dramatic words, intonations, and gestures. The very young child may be satisfied – even thrilled, with this reaction. The message is temporarily great for the child’s self-esteem. Not only is the item as good as the child thought; it’s even better. It’s worthy of some high honor. The President of the United States should know about it.
It doesn’t take long to see through this reaction. In my experience, some precocious first- graders do, and most third-graders do. There is a backlash in the child’s self-esteem level: “Adults say they like anything I do; they probably don’t like any of it. And I don’t blame them. The people I draw don’t look like people. The music I make is off-key, out of rhythm, and boring. No wonder adults pretended to like it. If they had been honest with me, I would have realized how little talent I have.” It may be hard to believe that children can perceive us and themselves this way, but I believe many do.
Another common adult reaction is negative criticism. It is easy to fall into the pattern of fault-finding, especially if the child seems headed for adolescence. Fault-finding can feel like teaching, and in the right context, can be educational. The right context is the one good
teachers and parents try to establish – a relationship in which trust and approval abound. But adults often bypass the building of that relationship, and head straight for the faults.
There is another way. I call it a response, not a reaction. The child has said, “Look at this!” or “Listen to this!” In many – maybe most – instances, the child is asking for exactly that. If you take the time – even sixty seconds – to look or listen, you may be giving a great gift. You haven’t been asked for positive or negative criticism. Those seconds of really looking or listening give the message that the child is worthwhile. If anything else is wanted, you’ll hear about it, and then is a good time to give it. Besides, it’s easier to give sincere feedback after you’ve looked or listened.

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