Recently, my daughters warmed my heart, honoring my request to play the Nice Game. There are three reasons why they agreed to this: 1. It was my birthday. 2. We were eating dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. 3. Everyone was in a very good mood (due to reasons 1 and 2). In this game, each person takes a turn saying something nice about every person in the room. Usually the kids groan if I suggest this, but on my birthday -- while dining at the Cheesecake Factory -- they poured it on thick with genuine hearts.
It's not just about saying nice things. I would change the name of the game to the What I Like About You Game, but it is not my place to do so. The game originated (at least in my world) with my church youth group leaders, Sandy and Nick, who became like family to me. During that season they had a steady stream of teenagers in their home, and sometimes when things would get a little rowdy, they would have us play the Nice Game.
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I knew that saying nice things to people made for warm and fuzzy feelings, but when I was in college I found out that the Nice Game could be very powerful -- even life changing.
True story: Several of my buddies and I worked for a credit card equipment company. One of my friends, Elizabeth, was short, curvy and had gorgeous curly red hair and blue eyes. She had a crush on a guy named Cory who was tall and lanky, also a redhead. Elizabeth was always bringing Cory homemade leftovers in Tupperware containers and fresh baked goods. Cory never seemed to appreciate her or her efforts, and I thought Elizabeth was wasting her time.
One night we were working late, stuffing envelopes, and everyone was getting a little cranky and tired. So I suggested we play the Nice Game. Cory takes his turn, and when he gets to Elizabeth he says, "You are a really nice girl. In fact, you are exactly the kind of girl I'd like to ask out on a date." They dated for several months and then got married. And I'll bet, from time to time, they play the Nice Game with their beautiful, redheaded children.
I realize this may be the corniest game ever, but here's the thing: everyone wants to know they are loved. And even more, they want to know what their loved ones like about them. My nephew Johnny, when he was about 5, would give you a big bear hug and say, "I love you." Then he would pull away, look you in the eye and say, "and … I LIKE you!" His "I like yous" were even better than his "I love yous."
Words are important to me, but if I'm not paying attention, 90 percent of my words to my kids on any given day will be instructional, corrective or critical. There are just so many things to instruct about, to correct and to criticize. I can walk into the at kitchen at 10 p.m. and see a dirty muffin pan in the sink -- after I got the whole kitchen clean -- and not even think about the fact that my 13-year-old daughter baked cinnamon rolls with cream cheese icing from scratch, served my husband and me while we were watching Shark Tank, and then cleaned up all of her dishes (except for the muffin pan.) I can scold my 15-year-old for not getting into the shower until 11 p.m., not thinking about the fact that she worked on homework all night, and I didn't have to hound her to do it.
I've heard that we need to give five compliments for every criticism, but I don't know very many people who do this well. I'd like to become this kind of person. I tell my kids I love them every day, but I think that they want to hear -- maybe even more -- what I like about them. What they are doing right. And just as criticism has a snowball effect, so does affirmation. Once I start noticing all the things my kids are doing right, all the special things they do that make them uniquely them, it's like my eyes are opened to see even more.
And it's not just our own kids who need some positive feedback. Their friends need affirmation, too. My mom drove a car pool when my sister and I were younger, and one time she complimented one of my sister's friends, telling her, "You have very good manners. You are a charming girl." We didn't know it then, but she was not hearing words like this at home. Twenty-five years later, she remembers what my mom liked about her. She didn't even believe it was true, but it meant the world to her.
I am trying to see and speak the positive. I hope my daughters grow up feeling loved, and knowing what I love about them. And I hope that from time to time they even play the Nice Game, with each other, and with their friends. For now, I would just add one rule: they are absolutely not to play the Nice Game with any boys.
• Becky Baudouin lives in the Northwest suburbs with her husband and their three daughters. She blogs regularly at beckyspen.blogspot.com.