I still remember my daughter’s third grade teacher conference, although it happened over a decade ago. Ms. P. and I squatted on the miniature desk chairs, which were laughably too small for us. Awkwardly, we hunched over a table, peering at Anna’s school work, drawings, and test results. Ms. P. glowed as she discussed Anna’s work ethic, social skills, and behavior. Apparently, Anna even gave her backrubs when Ms. P. was having a bad day.
“How is Anna doing?” asked my husband afterwards.
“She’s like Mary Poppins: ‘Practically perfect in every way.’”
This was our Anna. She spoke pleasantly and politely to grown-ups. She played endless games with her younger cousins at holidays. She did well in school and excelled in music. When sudden death struck a neighborhood family, 11-year-old Anna offered to walk the neighbor’s dog after school for the rest of the year. To this day, when her name is mentioned, these neighbors smile like the sun has just emerged. Anna has that effect on people.
The thing is, I wonder what all this is like for my daughter. She receives the quiet appreciation of those around her. But the big attention is mostly bestowed on others. Why is that? We all naturally pay more attention to what is wrong. Our brains are biased this way; it was an evolutionary advantage to notice problems. Sitting at a campfire late at night, cavemen would hear an odd noise and exclaim, “What’s that?!” Evolution wired their brains to notice what was wrong and unexpected, because that awareness would help them fight sudden danger. As a result, cavemen were probably not sitting around saying, “Oh how I appreciate this excellently cooked rabbit” or “What an extraordinary child you are!”
The thing is, we still have the brains of those cavemen. Our circumstances have evolved. We now have running water, electricity, and antibiotics, but our brains haven’t changed much. We may know how to work a computer now (or, in my case, not really) but our brains still run on the same operating system. We are wired to notice and pay attention to what is wrong, and to ignore what is right.
Perhaps that is why Anna sometimes feels overlooked, or at least I think she does. She is too practically-perfect to complain. But a lot of attention goes to managing the problems in our household: the disagreements, the misunderstandings, the fighting. I’m not saying our family is full of problems; we are pretty good. But whatever drama we experience is what captures our attention. Anna is rarely the cause of drama.
Recently, our family engaged in a clearly regrettable conversation. We each took turns ranking, in order, who was most annoying in the family. (I am chagrined to report that I was at, or near, the top of everyone’s list). Guess who was at the bottom? Anna. Anna was at the bottom of everyone’s list. We all experienced her as the least-annoying member of the family. But does that also mean she gets the least attention?
Psychologists study learning; we know a lot about it. Without getting into the weeds, the major take-away is that positive reinforcement improves learning. Animals (including us humans) are inclined to repeat behavior when given positive reinforcement. So, if every time your child puts his dish away, you smile and say, “thank you”, your son is likely to repeat this behavior.
The problem is that our caveman-brains might not even notice the positive behavior, as we are too busy watching what is wrong. As a result, children who are looking for attention, any kind of attention, might resort to negative behaviors, because at least their parents notice them when they are behaving badly. And parental attention, whether pleasant or not, is always better than being ignored. It is a human problem: it takes attention to help develop skills, but we tend to only pay attention to what bothers us.
So, you see, it takes a lot of special something to be a daughter like Anna. She carries on being practically-perfect, even when the attention of the household might be focused on the dumpster fire that has nothing to do with her. And still, she remains pleasant, helpful, and eager to please.
Do you have an easy child in your life? Thank your lucky stars and allow me to offer some advice. Notice your easy child and comment on their pleasant behavior. When they are calmly helping you clean up a spill, be sure to thank them. When they are pleasantly dressing themselves, compliment their cooperation. When your other child threatens to drop out of high school to become a tattoo artist, be sure to smile at your easy child and thank them for their hard work in chemistry. Notice your easy child sitting there pleasantly, getting her work done, doing her chores on time. And whenever you can, comment positively on her behavior, her choices, and her disposition. She’s easy; so your comments will go a long way.
Recently, almost all of the family gathered to see my oldest daughter graduate. However, Anna was away at college, and couldn’t attend the ceremony. The night before graduation, the rest of us went out to dinner. The waitress was chatting with us, asking where we were from and getting to know us.
“Do you have any other children?”
“Yes”, I responded, “We have another daughter, Anna.”
Then all of us said, simultaneously, “Anna is the best.”
I hope she knows that we know that.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.