Peeking out from the corner of my desk blotter is a note, slowly yellowing and bent from time. It is a card from my mother, containing only four sentences. In it, she praises my abilities as a writer without qualification.
Each sentence is full with love, offering specific examples of what my pursuit has meant to her and my father. The word "but" never appears on the card, however the word "and" is there almost a half dozen times.
Every time I read it — which is almost every day — am reminded to ask myself if I am doing the same thing for my daughters. I’ve asked myself how many times I’ve "but-ted" them, and me, out of happiness. I hate to say that it’s more often than I’d like to admit.
Although our eldest daughter usually got all A’s on her report card, there was never a semester when at least one teacher would not suggest that she talked too much in class. I always forgot to ask them if she was making improvement in controlling her behavior, if her comments contributed to the discussion in progress or encouraged a quieter child to talk. Instead, I would come home and greet her with, "Congratulations! Your Dad and I are very proud of your accomplishment, but could you try to tone it down in class?"
The same was true of our younger daughter. Like her sister, she is a lovely, bright, articulate and friendly child. She also treats the floor of her room and the bathroom as a closet, which has provoked me to say on more than one occasion, "Yes, that project is great, but clean up your room!"
I’ve noticed that other parents do the same thing.
"Our whole family was together for Christmas, but Kyle skipped out early to play his new computer game."
"The hockey team won, but Mike should have made that last goal."
"Amy’s the homecoming queen, but now she wants $200 to buy a new dress and shoes."
But, but, but.
Instead, what I learned from my mother is that if you really want love to flow to your children, start thinking "and, and, and…" instead. For example:
"Our whole family was together for Christmas dinner, and Kyle mastered his new computer game before the night was through."
"The hockey team won, and Mike did his best the whole game."
"Amy’s the homecoming queen, and she’s going to look gorgeous!"
The fact is that "but" feels bad — "and" feels good. And when it comes to our children, feeling good is definitely the way to go. When they feel good about themselves and what they are doing, they do more of it, building their self-confidence, their judgment and their harmonious connections to others. When everything they say, think or do is qualified or put down in some way, their joy sours and their anger soars.
This is not to say that children don’t need or won’t respond to their parents’ expectations. They do and they will, regardless of whether those expectations are good or bad. When those expectations are consistently bright and positive and then are taught, modeled and expressed, amazing things happen.
"I see you made a mistake. And I know you are intelligent enough to figure out what you did wrong and make a better decision next time."
Or, "You’ve been spending hours on that project, and I’d love to have you explain it to me."
Or, "We work hard for our money, and I know you can help figure out a way to pay for what you want."
It’s not enough just to say we love our children. In a time when frustration has grown fierce, we can no longer afford to limit love’s expression. If we want to tone down the sound of violence in our society, we’re going to have to turn up the volume on noticing, praising, guiding and participating in what is right with our children.
"No more buts!" is a clarion call for joy. It’s also a challenge, the opportunity fresh before us every day to put our attention on what is good and promising about our children, and to believe with all our hearts that they will eventually be able to see the same in us and the people with whom they will ultimately live, work and serve.
And if I ever forget, I have my mother’s note to remind me.