Last week at dinner my younger son casually turned to me and said, “These are the things I like about you, Mommy, that you play Legos with me, that you play puppies with me, that you hug me and that you’re a good mommy.”
Not to be outdone, his older brother immediately chimed in, “And these are the things I like about you, Mommy, that you drive me to all my practices and help me with my homework and read to me and root for me when I play baseball.”
I was so surprised and touched by this spontaneous outpouring that I didn’t quite know what to say, other than, “Thank you.”
The idea of affirmations can feel so cheesy and embarrassing, like Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live telling himself he’s good enough and smart enough and gosh darn it, people like him. Affirmations in reality, when they come from other people and are truly meant, can become words that we treasure, words that guide us and tell us who God created us to be, when we’re not missing the mark.
That moment at the dinner table brought me right back to my college years when I worked summers leading mission work camps, and our crew of four looked forward to the end of each camp week when we’d go around and each list several specific things that each person did that week and what it showed about them. Running those camps could be tough, so it was rarely, “Remember when you accomplished that amazing thing?” More often, it was, “I was so impressed with the way you didn’t fall completely apart during that one crisis.” Or, “Thank you so much for helping me that day everything was going wrong.” I could never predict anything anyone was going to say about me because usually the things they noticed about me were so different from the way I experienced each situation, and it was so humbling and wonderful to hear someone describe something positive about you that you’d never seen or realized.
This is exactly what we’re called to do as Christ’s body, just as it says in 1 Thessalonians 5:11, “Therefore encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are doing.”
This practice can have particular resonance in a family setting. We have a tradition of doing affirmations for each person on his or her birthday, a practice that becomes more special and powerful as our children get older. But I think it would be valuable to engage in this practice much more often. I found as a young adult how such practices guided me in my life and even my career by encouraging me to be my best self and helping to illuminate my gifts, especially at times where I was unsure that I had any gifts at all.
I believe the most powerful affirmations are not the vague ones, “You are nice,” although when uttered reluctantly by a child trying to manage his emotions even that rather lukewarm concession can be meaningful. In general, however, I believe that the more specific the better, so not so much “You are a good brother,” but “I loved the way you helped your brother with his seatbelt today when he was having trouble without even having to be asked.”
And in a conversation I had earlier this week with education expert Megan Stone, she also advised especially focusing on how those we are affirming deal with failure and hard times. So, even more powerful than “You are a great baseball player” might be ” I was so proud of the way you didn’t give up or get frustrated after you struck out this week but stayed focused and were able to get a hit the next at-bat.”
I can tell you from experience that hearing someone affirm you for the way you handled something difficult makes it a lot easier to handle the next difficult thing. For one, it simply helps give you the confidence to know you can persevere, at the very least because you’ve handled difficult times before.
And it’s not just for our kids. So often I find myself thinking that these kind of practices are only for my children, for their enrichment and spiritual growth. Like I’m all done with my own spiritual growth–ha! Of course we’re all engaged in spiritual growth together, no matter what our age or level of experience. And I can also tell you that on those days when I don’t feel like I’m a good enough mom, I am going to pull out and treasure those words from my children about what I’m doing right in their eyes.
Sometimes that’s the greatest gift of an affirmation, the chance to see yourself for a moment through the positive lens of someone else’s eyes, maybe even God’s.
So, how have you affirmed your family members recently?
Therefore encourage each other
and build each other up, just as you are doing.
1 Thessalonians 5:11