I had an epiphany while reading Dr. Seuss to my son the other day.
We were enjoying "Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?," a 1973 gem about an old man in the Desert of Drize who counsels a young listener to count his blessings.
When you think things are bad,
when you feel sour and blue,
when you start to get mad …
you should do what I do!
Just tell yourself, Duckie
you're really quite lucky!
Some people are much more …
oh, ever so much more …
oh, muchly much-much more
unlucky than you!
I use this logic exhaustively on my kids with little to no success. They may, in fact, consider cauliflower a nutrient-dense gift from the earth. They might revere bedtime as a daily reminder of their warm, safe home and all of its accouterments. It's possible they regard education as a privilege.
But they're not letting on.
Still, I yammer on about how really quite lucky they are, particularly when it comes to school.
"Getting up at 7 is not a hardship, sweetie. Girls in Afghanistan risk their lives for an education."
Sluggish homework habits, morning feet dragging, lunchbox bellyaching — all grounds for my earnest reminders.
Now we're gearing up for a new school year — one kid off to kindergarten, another heading to third grade and a third embarking on eighth. So I happened to be taking stock of my motivational tools and whether they, in fact, motivate, when my soon-to-be kindergartner and I sat down with Dr. Seuss.
The story, which may be a parody of my parenting style, a skewering of the excesses of childhood, a morality tale on the human condition or none of the above, goes like this:
And, speaking of plants
you should be glad-ish
you're not Farmer Falkenberg's
And you're so, so, so lucky
you're not a left sock,
left behind by mistake
in the Kaverns of Krock!
More ridiculous than evoking Afghan girls to drag my daughter out of bed? Not really. She has as much chance of having to risk her life for an education as she does waking up a radish. Am I motivating her or shaming her? I fear it's the latter.
I called Carl Pickhardt, a child psychologist and father of four whose advice I adore. He wrote a piece for Psychology Today about motivating kids to perform and helping them view responsibilities (like homework) not as a source of conflict but as a vehicle for future success.
You don't mention anything about constantly reminding kids how lucky they are to drink from the well of a world-class education, I told him. What gives?
"Once kids move out of the phase where they're really excited about learning to read and use numbers, they've moved from the age of appreciation to the age of entitlement," Pickhardt told me. "Entitlement really frustrates parents because they want the kid to be grateful, and the kid just keeps complaining."
Exactly. How do I make it stop?
"You're not in the business of altering your child's thoughts," he said. "But you are in the business of adding perspective to your child's thoughts, including their way of thinking about the larger world and what's going on in it."
Keep gently reminding them, he said, how lucky they are. But don't expect them to embrace homework (or cauliflower) with any more gusto as a result.
"Part of your responsibility as a parent is to broadcast a view of the world that puts their present experience into a larger context," he said. "You're not trying to change their mind or make them think like you. You're just adding some information."
I like that. I like thinking of my reminders as context, rather than motivators, since that approach has a fighting chance of being the former and shows no signs of working as the latter.
And from Dr. Seuss, I'll accept my own gentle reminder: Above all, keep a sense of humor.
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