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About The Book

The twentieth anniversary edition of the classic parenting book, now updated to reflect Steven Vannoy’s two decades of experience helping both families and businesses better care for their children and employees.

For more than twenty years, The 10 Greatest Gifts I Give My Children has been helping parents to put the joy back into parenting. Steven Vannoy’s unique parenting style is designed to create a harmonious family atmosphere with self-esteem, compassion, balance, humor, communication, integrity, responsibility, conscious choice, and full expression of emotions.

And parents are not the only ones who have benefitted from Vannoy’s wisdom: in the years since the book was first published, Vannoy has used the principles in this book to help businesses worldwide create healthier and more fulfilling workplaces. With updated principles and a new foreword by the author, this twentieth anniversary edition will help both new and old readers of The 10 Greatest Gifts I Give My Children build better relationships with their children and colleagues both in the office and at home.


Chapter 1

Tool One:

Forward Focus

Sometimes I wonder about certain drivers I see hurtling down the highway. Their driving seems very erratic. Then I pull alongside and notice that while they appeared to be looking straight ahead, they were actually driving by looking in the rearview mirror. Some are checking their hair, applying makeup, shaving -- whatever -- and some are just staring in the mirror for no apparent reason.

A lot of families I know, including my own for many years, steer their lives the way these drivers do their cars -- by staring in the rearview mirror!

We only have a certain amount of energy, time, and potential to use each day. Of the 100 percent we have, only we can choose where to focus it. And while at times it may look as if we're moving forward, most of us are really aiming backward -- back at all our accumulated problems, what didn't work, what went wrong, who else's fault it was, why we can't get where we want to go.

Meanwhile, the families that are really going forward look forward, with only a brief glance back now and then to gain perspective and remember what worked before so they can do more of it.

It reminds me of five-year-old Jeremy's question: "Mom," he asked in a restaurant one day, "what's history?" His mom, Diane, gave him a lengthy discourse, drawing on her extensive college education.

"I could see by his blank stare this was not getting through," Diane said. "I asked him where he had heard it used."

"The waitress over there just dropped a fork and said 'Well, that's history,'" he replied.

The waitress had the proper perspective. She could have focused on how clumsy she was, what a problem it was that she would have to get a clean fork, how it disrupted her work. That kind of thinking would have lowered her self-esteem and diminished her joy and energy, but she let it just go as "history." Instead of reinforcing the thought that this was going to be "another one of those days," she instead turned her attention to moving forward.

Can we actually choose how to focus our minds and energy so that we keep moving forward? Absolutely! Let's start with three simple principles of how our minds work.

First: We can only focus on one thing at a time. When someone thinks he's simultaneously watching television, reading a magazine and talking on the phone he's fooling himself. Research shows that he is actually switching his attention back and forth from one thing to another. Dentists have discovered how patients listening to music through headphones experience less discomfort because they're focusing on the music rather than what's going on in their mouth. We all know how easily a child can be distracted from an upset with a hug or a kiss or a toy because he or she can only focus on one thing at a time.

Second: We can't avoid a "don't." Imagine I'm standing in front of you fight now and I suddenly hold up a sign that reads: "Don't look at my shoes." Where are your eyes going to go immediately? You guessed it! You might have tremendous willpower and be able to stop your eyes before they drift all the way down to my feet, but the urge will be mighty strong to catch a glimpse of my shoes. This is because our minds have to imagine doing something before we can tell ourselves to do it or not to do it.

It took me a long time to realize that when I told my daughter not to spill her milk, she had to visualize actually spilling her milk before she could understand my words. If I tell her not to hit her sister, guess what I've done? If you think I've just presented her with a prime target, you're absolutely right.

Third: We go toward what we focus on. Have you ever watched a pothole as you drove down the road and found that's exactly what you steered into? Or started watching the white line along the highway at night and found you were soon straddling it instead of driving in your lane? Horseback riders know a horse will go wherever its rider is looking.

I remember the last time I went hang gliding. As I soared off the mountain cliff, a huge, soft-looking meadow spread below me. Only one tree interrupted its vast emptiness. Just one tree. Only one tree. A fascinating tree. I couldn't get my mind off that tree. Guess where I landed?

Which child is likely to do better in a softball game -- the one who's focusing on the ball or the one who's trying to remember where to put her feet or how to hold her arms or grip the bat?

These three factors describing how our minds work are so apparent now that I think back to how we used to struggle with my daughter Emmy's "shyness."

When Emmy was five, she was painfully shy. I introduced her as my "shy child" and other people would comment on how shy she was. Since we go toward what we focus on, of course, all she did was become more shy. I'd say, "Emmy, don't be shy," but since we can't avoid a don't, guess which direction her shy quotient zoomed?

The difference in her was like night and day once I learned to adjust my own focus as well as hers. If she said "hello" to someone, no matter how timidly, I focused on her greeting and complimented her on it. (This is a process we work on in "10 Greatest Gifts" seminars called FAC -- Find, Acknowledge, Celebrate!) If she shook someone's hand or looked them in the eye, I noticed that behavior and gave her lots of positive messages about it.

In just a few months she became one of the most outgoing, sociable little girls I know. And many other people know and enjoy her as well, since shyness no longer holds her back.

Each of us has a 100 percent portion of personal and family energy to use every day. Where we focus that energy makes or breaks our day and takes us either several steps back into the mess we're struggling to get out of or many steps forward to where we want to go.

On the opposite page is an illustration listing the choices we have every day on where to focus our attention and energy.

We make choices every day. We can focus on what's not working (the left, back side) or we can focus on what's working. Since we can only focus on one thing at a time and since we go toward what we focus on, where would you rather focus? Most people say "on what's working," but where do most people and businesses usually direct their attention?

Would you rather focus on all the reasons you (or your family or your club or your company) can't get the outcome you want, or would you rather head toward the results you want to create? Do you know someone who, when faced with a new idea or solution, can think of at least a dozen reasons why it won't work? I'll bet you know many because, sadly, that's the norm in our society.

When we're operating on the back side of the energy circle, we're stuck on the problem, on what's not working, on all the reasons we can't get where we want to be. We look for who else is to blame so we can justify why we're poor, helpless victims. Since we can only focus on one thing at a time, when we're on that side of the energy circle, we are indeed stuck there. Remember we can only be on one side or the other.

When we refocus our energy and move into the forward side, we concentrate on what's working, what the solution is, the results we want to create and what we can do to move toward where we want to be.

It's a simple reality of life -- what you focus on is where you'll go. Focus on your problems, and they'll loom larger every day. Focus on solutions, and the problems begin to fade away. Focus on what uproar your household is always in and the uproar will get worse. Focus on the quiet moments when everyone and everything is functioning harmoniously and that peace will soon expand.

In the same vein, focus on all the reasons you can't achieve something or why it can't be done -- and presto -- you'll prove yourself right, or find more reasons than you thought imaginable. Focus on what you don't like about something or somebody and sure enough, you'll find more and more of those traits.

"I get it now," a woman at a recent session called out as we discussed the energy circle.

I'm a mature, rational adult and a very careful driver. I've never had an accident, but suddenly I go through phases of dinging and denting the car. I realize now it's always after my dad visits from out of town. Whenever he visits he always insists that I scoot over to let him drive because, according to him, I'm not a good enough driver. When he leaves, I start running into things. I know now I go toward what I focus on. After a couple of weeks with him, I'm convinced I'm a lousy driver.

A husband and wife said at another seminar, "We're changing from having a 'TV' room to a 'family' room since we know we'll get what we focus on."

Families can easily find themselves hopelessly mired in the "backward" part of the circle when they gather at the dinner table each night.

My colleague Allison, for example, grew up in a very verbal family, all lawyers and teachers and writers. But there was also a predominantly negative focus of "Can you top this?" to their dinner conversations. Her brother's lousy day in school could be topped by mom's crummy day at home only to be bested by dad's horrible day in court.

We learned to score points by having the worst anecdotes. Unfortunately this translated into some pretty dismal responses when people would ask me, as an adult, how things were going.

Unlike those reticent Minnesotans Garrison Keillor describes so well, I wouldn't even say, "OK, could be better." or "So-so, can't complain." Instead, I had learned how to make sure the inquirer knew my life was going much worse than his was. He'd get the full story on why I was too tired, too overworked, too underpaid...whatever was my lousiest item of the day. It's pretty scary to think what kind of life most people must have imagined I led.

And, of course, I believed all that too. We go toward what we focus on! What a disgusting bunch of barriers I had erected to really enjoying my life!

Imagine how your children will grow up if you ask questions like these at the dinner table or when you talk to them on the phone:

* What was the best thing that happened to you today?

* What did you do better today than you've ever done before?

* What did you do today that let you know how special you are?

* Of all the things we do together as a family, what do you like best?

(Other examples of forward focus questions appear at the end of this chapter.)

You notice these questions require something more than a simple "yes'" or "no" answer, and keep people's energy moving forward rather than backward where they're stuck on what's not working.

Does this mean we ignore the crappy stuff that happens to our family or that we try to maintain an artificially "positive" attitude? Absolutely not! There are many times when we do have upsetting feelings like sadness, or anger, or fear, or disappointment. These are normal, not bad. The only "bad" feelings are those that are stuffed away or ignored. Forward focus is about managing energy, but there's no energy to manage, nor any way to manage it, if our feelings are in the way.

Denying feelings is what creates dysfunctional families. How can any child grow up whole whose feelings are constantly discounted? How does a child develop a sense of self if he or she must conform only to what is "acceptable" to the person or situation his or her family tiptoes around?

Children simply tune out and ultimately turn off when they are not allowed to own their own feelings. A close friend of mine did just that, resulting in lots of pain and expensive therapy as an adult.

In my house it was my dad's way or no way. I'd hear, "How can you be hungry?" when I knew my tummy was rumbling. Or, "Eat now or not at all," when I wasn't the least bit hungry.

And that was just the simple stuff. Everything I liked or didn't like, wanted or didn't want, enjoyed or hated was questioned. "How could you possibly like that?" I'd hear. I didn't know how, but I knew I liked it. At least I did for a while. Soon I simply stopped feeling because not one emotion I had was acknowledged or validated.

We certainly will not agree with everything our children feel, but it is crucially important that we honor whatever feelings they have. That gift alone could be one of our biggest contributions to their lives.

I'm keenly aware that there are times when our circumstances seem too overwhelming to deal with on our own. Divorce, financial problems, job loss, poor health -- so many situations in our lives can drag us over into the back side of the energy circle and keep us stuck there. In such situations, you cannot always expect to overcome these obstacles alone. Seek help and counseling from your church or a therapist if you feel overwhelmed.

But even in the midst of intense personal pain, managing your focus can be an extremely beneficial tool for you and your family. Allison continues her story.

I enjoyed 16 years of a growing, successful career as editor of a local newspaper. Then the company was sold, and suddenly, like so many thousands of other people in recent years, my job was eliminated, literally overnight. I was asked to clear out my desk and be gone in two days.

Sixteen years of professional life erased in a mere 48 hours! There was no farewell party, not even an opportunity to say goodbye to all those wonderful people who had played such a big part in my life. There was no closure, no finale, just watching my professional life dribbling out in ugly little tasks of sorting and packing, trying to leave some continuity behind for my colleagues.

After my intense anger subsided, an equally intense depression consumed me. I was paralyzed with fear: I was single, middle-aged, had a son in college, and no prospects in a nearly impenetrable job market. People who were accustomed to hearing me describe what a backward-focused life I led before certainly didn't want to talk to me now.

I thought there would be no end to the helplessness and hopelessness that engulfed my life. I had adverse physical reactions to every antidepressant the doctor prescribed, so I couldn't even rely on medication for relief. I was convinced I was in a tunnel where the only light would not be at the other end but from an oncoming locomotive.

Life slogged on for months, pretty much flat line by now. No real ups or downs, no joy, no pain. But I started to notice a difference when I began working with the "10 Greatest Gifts" material. No matter how determined I was to stay stuck in my misery, I'd find myself focused forward after a phone call or meeting with Steve Vannoy. I was fired up to get the next project started or do the next piece of research. I was getting things done! I was actually looking forward to something!

While I was far from complete in resolving my depression, I had certainly found a new road to take toward overcoming it. I got it! I could only focus on one thing at a time and if that thing was how lousy I felt, or how depressed I was, or how many bills were piling up, that's what I got -- lousier, more depressed and larger and larger stacks of bills.

When I started focusing on solutions, on where I needed to go, on the results I wanted to create, that's the direction I went. Amazing!

Another mother told me during a seminar one day that she felt like posting a sign at their house that read "RIP" -- like those in graveyards.

All that time we've spent going backward is just gone, lost. May it rest in peace.

We looked and acted like a regular family. We both had good jobs, a nice house and car. The kids were doing well in school and were well behaved. We attended all our children's school functions and spent a lot of time with our kids.

But I realize now what an expert I was in pointing out what was wrong with my husband, the kids, the neighbors, and what I didn't like about myself. I was playing the game of life backwards. All that time and missed opportunities can never be regained. What's particularly painful is realizing that not only was I throwing my own life away but my family's as well.

It always surprises me how quickly children respond to the gift of forward focus and how dramatically it can change their day.

My seven-year-old daughter Alison was morose as we rode up the ski lift one sunny Saturday. She'd just made a run down the slope that was nearly a disaster, full of bumps and falls and awkwardness. She was down on herself and so, of course, her skiing got worse and worse. I was being a good "old" dad, making notes on all the things she was doing wrong, which would ensure she'd still be focusing on those things and doing more of them. I could have given her a whole lot of "don'ts": don't lean that way, don't use your inside ski like that, and of course, she wouldn't be able to avoid doing them.

Instead, I simply reminded her: "Do you remember what you were doing a couple of months ago when the ski instructor said you were the best student in the class?" Her next run was magnificent as she focused on what worked and how to do more of it.

Think for a moment about the cost and benefit of this simple change in approach to the situation. By pointing out everything she was doing wrong, that is, taking the "low road," the messages she was receiving were that she was dumb, she was awkward, she was a terrible skier. By taking the high road and focusing her toward her strengths, she learned that she was OK, she could do what she wanted, she was in control of her body, she could be a terrific skier.

An episode a young couple shared during one of our seminars probably sums up this concept best. They were visiting their priest for some premarital counseling. As the priest came into his office he asked them if they had noticed the beautiful Oriental rug in the vestibule. They had, and indeed thought it was outstanding.

"Did you also notice the spot in the comer?" the priest asked.

They hadn't. "Well," the priest said, "I know that spot is there and I always see it when I look at that rug. If you want your marriage to work, remember to always look for the beauty and not the spot. Whether it be a spouse, a child, a neighbor, a boss or a friend, you can find as many spots as you want to look for."

I understand now how much I always looked for my ex-wife's "spots." I looked for all the things I didn't like about her, and that's all I could see. The cost of such focus was losing both her and my children. These days my friends think I must have been married to a different person when they ask how she's doing. It's only because I now look for her "beauty," and that's what I find more and more of.

Unfortunately, there is no magic pill to clear UP the undesirable situations that will still happen in our lives. But whether you're living through good times or difficult ones, where you focus your energy can make all the difference in determining whether you're having a good day or not. In fact, I can still easily slip back into making a good day a bad one just by shifting focus.

The point isn't really about whether it's a "good" day or a "bad" day. I've had days that were 90 percent good and only 10 percent bad, but I've focused on the 10 percent bad and made them into pretty lousy days. On the other hand, I've had days that were 90 percent bad, but I've had the presence of mind to focus on the 10 percent good and turned them into acceptable, productive days.

Focus can make such a big difference. Here's a good equation to remember:


Remember the two moms in the grocery store I described earlier? The same event occurred -- both children reached out to touch some produce. The moms' individual, and very different, reactions to the same event produced entirely different outcomes as to how each child experienced the event. You always have the choice of how to react, of whether to take the high road or the low road in your approach to handling a situation.

A common myth in our society is that conflict is bad. But conflict can be a primary motivator and an indicator of change. Solving conflict doesn't have to be only a win-lose situation. If we're stuck on the back side of the energy circle, we'll be defensive and protective, and conflict will become a power struggle. On the front side of the energy circle, you can approach conflict from a different perspective -- find out what's already working and how to make the situation better for both parties.

One mom, for example, was constantly frustrated at her 15-month-old Tyler. "My older son, Ryan, never threw food or did other annoying things like Tyler did," she said. "But making the list of special gifts we want to give each child helped me focus on Tyler's independence and gregarious personality as strengths rather than weaknesses."

Forward focus questions are one of the best ways I know to keep myself and my family on the forward side of the circle.

My little Ali was wretched with the flu one night. I couldn't do much but hold her head while she threw up. Afterward, when I put her to bed, I could see she was going to lie there for a long time thinking about how miserable she felt. She'd had a rotten day. Nobody had wanted to play with her and she was emotionally at the bottom of the pile. Her emotional pain was as strong as her physical pain and helped keep her stuck.

I acknowledged her feelings by asking, "Honey, you're feeling pretty yukky, aren't you?" Then I spent a few minutes asking her things like: "What are some of the things you like best about me?" "What do you like best about yourself?" "What are you looking forward to tomorrow?" She was asleep with a smile on her face in just a few minutes. She could only focus on one thing at a time and that could either be how dreadful she felt or some good things in her life. And since she'd go toward what she was focusing on...well, you get the picture.

I know that little girl well enough to know that without that shift in focus she would have tossed and turned a long time trying to get to sleep. She probably would have still felt bad the next morning. And I was able to sleep soundly, knowing she was comfortable and content.

And just as it worked for her, it works for me as well.

On the trip home from a vacation at Disneyland, I was fitfully trying to sleep in my coach seat. At 3 A.M., the train pulled to a stop right under the brightest street light I've ever seen. My first inclination was to be really ticked off: the light was so bright I'd never get back to sleep, and we would be stopped here for at least an hour.

I could have stayed stuck in that negative mode for a long time and erased all the things I'd enjoyed about the trip. Instead, I realized that the light hadn't bothered the girls, who were curled up fast asleep in their seats across the aisle. Because of the light I could see them clearly. I had the opportunity to enjoy one of those rare and precious times when we can unabashedly stare at our children and revel in our love for them.

The light was even bright enough for me to open my journal and jot down my feelings and memories about this trip. My simple choice to refocus allowed me to experience the love, tenderness, and closeness of my children that I would've otherwise missed.

More important, I noticed once again that this episode was a juncture that I had formerly ignored. I had finally begun to see that I always have a choice in what to see and how to react -- and that knowledge alone has transformed my life. In this case, I chose joy. Before I would have wasted precious hours or even days being bitter or enraged or in fear

The Greek philosopher Epictetus said it so well: "We are not troubled by things but by the opinion we have of things."

When I first started asking my daughter Emmy what was the best thing that had happened to her that day, she reacted like most kids, with that atrocious seven-letter word -- "Nothing!" The next time I asked, she looked at me as though I were a little less alien. A few months later, I was delighted when I asked her, "Emmy, what's the best thing that happened to you today?" and she replied, "Daddy, the best thing that happened to me today was waking, up this morning and knowing you were going to ask me that question."

Unfortunately, these kinds of questions are still foreign to our society. What do you think the response would be if we asked people what's the worst thing that happened today?

d"Forward focus questions are my favorite," said Linda after doing a "10 Greatest Gifts" seminar.

When I first started asking them, my nine-year-old Katie was pretty typical of most kids. "Don't know," she'd say, or "I don't have any favorite things." After hearing my husband Pete and her brother Zach participate, she realized she was being left out of a lot of good conversation. She's as enthusiastic as any of us now. Those kinds of questions have really enhanced our sharing time at the end of the day.

Forward focus questions work with every member of the family. One man called us after a seminar with this story.

I went home that night and asked my wife, who'd worked that day, what was the best thing that had happened to her. She'd never been asked that question before so she had to really stop and think. Her "best thing" was a small, relatively unimportant incident. But far more significant was my asking that type of question. She felt important, listened to. We had the best talk in probably twenty-five years. That night marked a vast shift in the culture of our relationship.

Forward focus questions can work at any age. Two-year-old Michael, for example, was too young to respond to his mom Michalyn's question when she asked him what the most special thing was that happened that day. So she decided to tell him something special. "Guess what," she said. "Mommy loves you!" Now whenever she says "Guess what?" or "What's special?" he delights in answering, "Mommy loves me!"

It works at the other end of the age spectrum too. Here's one mother's story.

Focus is the most critical thing we do. I found this out when my daughters were already nearly grown, one age 20, the other 16. But it's never too late.

My older daughter was having problems in her personal life. One day she had a big blowup with me for the umpteenth time, blaming me for everything wrong in her life. Everything was all my fault, she told me constantly, because of all the terrible mistakes I'd made as a parent.

I'd bought into it every time. I felt guilty. But I never stopped to realize how many positive changes I'd made in my life. I took a look at the fact that I was not such a bad person. I was growing and improving, making major changes. I decided to shift my focus and stop listening to her negative comments.

When we got together again after not speaking to each other for about six weeks, I let her know that I was not my past, that I was living in the now. I reminded her that I would not play the victim every time she had a problem. I welcomed her to join me in the here and now or stay in the past alone.

Instantaneously our relationship shifted. She respects me now. I did the same thing with my younger daughter with the same results. Focusing on the past, on what went wrong, only keeps you stuck.

Another family with a teenager quickly found out which focus works faster.

The 16-year-old had made special arrangements with her parents to stay out very late on a weeknight to attend a concert. The next morning she was having trouble getting up to go to school. "Get your rear end out of that bed!" her mom yelled and nagged. Her daughter burrowed further and further under the covers, ears closed.

Dad came in to read his version of the riot act when he remembered the Forward Focus tool. "Wow," he exclaimed, "2 A.M.! Must have been a great concert. What happened last night?" he asked. Her face came out from under the covers. She told him.

He asked her what else made it such a great night. She emerged to tell him more. He finally said, "I'll bet your friends can hardly wait to hear all that." He watched her zoom into the shower and get off to school in record time.

So much of parenting -- and teaching -- is just like what our top teachers and organizational leaders do. If you want to get great performance from someone, you don't point out where they're weak or what they did wrong. If you want them to do better, focus on their strengths, and they'll go harder and harder in that direction. You already know you try twice as hard to please someone who thanks you for a good job.

I was meeting with a principal one day who was complaining about an extraordinarily grouchy school bus driver whom parents, teachers, and kids all complained about. I asked the principal what she did when she received a complaint about the bus driver

"We go right to him with the complaint so he can work on the problem," she said. Of course, all she was doing was accentuating and perpetuating the problem.

Instead, I suggested she ask the teachers and parents to start FACing (remember: find, acknowledge, celebrate) him whenever he did something acceptable. Maybe they could comment on how they appreciated his getting to their stop on time or that he seemed to care so much about the children's safety. I recommended that she start asking the children what good things that driver did that day and let him know what they said.

The driver still acts a lot like "Crankshaft" in the cartoon strip, the principal told me a few weeks later, but she said everyone can see he's changing bit by bit.

Remember, what we focus on is where we'll go. We can only focus on one thing at a time and we always have the choice of what that thing will be. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts I can give my children -- and my friends -- is a model of someone who doesn't waste 10 or 12 hours a day standing still or moving backward. I -- and you -- can be aware of where our energy is going and where we choose to focus it.

Unfortunately, most of us focus not on the good steps as our kids go down the path of life but on every problem they create when they step off the path. We step right in to point out their mistakes, to scold them, punish them, and make sure they know what they've done wrong.

We were talking about the path of life in a session one day when a chaplain commented, "You know, I just wish when I was raising my kids that I had made the path a little bit wider."

Another mother wondered if being overly protective created such a narrow path our kids couldn't possibly stay on it. She recalled two incidents with her children.

We were in Italy many years ago when my son Adam wanted to eat a sausage from a street vendor. I wouldn't let him get it and admonished him about how we didn't know where the food came from, how dirty it might be, what kind of preparation it had, and so on. Of course, dozens of people were sitting around eating food from that stand and none of them died on the spot or even looked as if they might get ill -- but I had to berate him, making sure he knew he was a stupid kid and only I knew best.

Another time we were vacationing in Orlando. While visiting Sea World my daughter desperately wanted a souvenir dolphin toy. Except, she insisted on a white dolphin with a pink nose which I wouldn't let her buy. "You can't get a pink and white dolphin," I yelled over her loud sobs. "Dolphins are gray, not white. Why would you want to get such a stupid toy?"

Many years later I realized I had been the "stupid" one in that incident. I resolved then and there that when my daughter got married someday, no matter what it took, my special present for her would be a white dolphin with a pink nose.

One of the biggest revelations for me was to understand that I was perpetuating my children's misbehavior. I was constantly focusing on their problems and trying to fix them. For example, when their rooms were messy, I didn't tell them they were bad, I didn't outwardly label them as messy kids, or use stem consequences. I just told them constantly to clean up their room. The message they got was that they were messy kids, that they couldn't take care of themselves, and that I would own the responsibility for the problem.

I also used "no" or "don't" as a matter of course, almost every day, in almost every situation. I'd say, "Don't leave your clothes lying around, don't leave a mess in the bathroom, don't forget to clean your room this week," ad nauseam. As Shad Helmstetter notes in his book What to Say When You Talk to Yourself (Pocket Books, 1986), the average American child hears the word "No" or "Don't" over 148,000 times while growing up, compared with just a few thousand "Yes" messages.

If what we don't want our children to do is what we've gotten them focused on, and they can only focus on one thing at a time, and they go toward what they focus on -- what have we been teaching them all these years?

But the good news is, those same factors that run our minds can create the good behavior and qualities and values you want to nurture in your children. Quite simply, if we notice our kids when they're misbehaving or being irresponsible, or we constantly say "Don't touch that" or "Don't be a bad boy," that's what we'll get more of. But if we notice and acknowledge when they're being responsible or behaving well, we'll get more of that.

Change doesn't necessarily happen overnight. I started with small things -- acknowledging one doll that had been put away or one dress hung up. But the improvement mushroomed to the point where a messy room is no longer an issue.

However, just as our kids will begin tuning out all the "noes" and "don'ts" we have hurled at them, they will also begin tuning out praise if it's used too much. I don't want to be a zombie parent who never notices or says anything, but praise must be sincere, it must be for their highest good and not just for your benefit or to manipulate them. It must also be specific, and it shouldn't be overused.

How often and what you praise your children for will be different for every family. One couple, for example, said they praise their children every couple of weeks about how well they play together, which has worked well to cut down how often the children fight.

Of course, there are times when we must say "No." The even better news is that our children are much more likely to hear and obey that "No" if they haven't been overwhelmed by or become resistant to all the other, often meaningless "Noes" we've thrown at them.

I now realize I was responsible for creating a shy child. I was responsible for creating an irresponsible child, for creating kids who were having behavior problems. Children are not born knowing what is "responsible" or "irresponsible." In fact, they literally don't know which way to go until we reinforce one behavior or the other. If we notice and reinforce the inappropriate one, that's the way they'll go.

I watched a little tyke the other day at a friend's family gathering. After a brief afternoon rain shower, this toddler managed to find every single puddle around. He'd run toward it gleefully, wade right in and stomp around, splashing water and mud all over his shoes and pants. Some even made it up to his shirt and face.

This little boy also engaged in dozens of other behaviors in this short afternoon. He'd come over to get a bite to eat, play with a toy, touch his mom or dad, swing on the swings, get a drink of juice -- you know, all that random and purposeful activity toddlers turn their energy into.

But what was the one thing this child heard about all afternoon? You're absolutely right! The puddles. Practically every grown-up there said, "Don't play in the puddles" (remember, we can't avoid a don't), or noticed him while he was in a puddle, or afterward commented on his dirty shoes and clothes and face (we go toward what we focus on). By the end of the afternoon this child was a star puddle-stomper because that's what he was noticed for. And where do you think he'll head first the next time it rains?

Not only are we often creating exactly the opposite behavior to that which we desire, but the effects of where we focus may be far greater than we want to bear. Here's one woman's poignant story.

I separated from my husband when our son was just two. My father, who lives out of town, visits frequently to spend time with his grandson. Dad was in town last week and I realized after attending the first session of the "10 Greatest Gifts" seminar how my dad gets on my ten-year-old's case. He gives orders or constantly corrects him or tells him what to do. I listened with my "child's ear" all week and realized that all my son is hearing is "Do this, don't do that, do something else and be sure you do it this way."

It really hit me Sunday in church when it was time to kneel and pray. You'd think my father could finally leave the boy alone. But, no, Grandad was saying, "Kneel straight, don't lean on your mom, put your hands like this..." All those instructions when the child was simply trying to pray. My son and I went back to church that night while Grandad stayed home and I noticed my son praying ardently. I complimented him on it and asked why he was praying so intently.

"I'm praying that Grandad will go home soon," was his reply.

What are just some of the gifts we give with the Focus Tool? The list is endless, but some of the ones I think of immediately are:

* Optimism, as our children learn not to stay stuck on what's wrong or what can't be done and instead stay focused on what's working and what can be done.

* Problem solving, as they learn to look for solutions rather than focus on the problem.

* Self-esteem, as they focus on what's good about themselves.

* Lack of defensiveness, as they're not looking for who to blame or why they're a victim.

* And so much more, like risk-taking, creativity, and a joyful attitude. People who operate from the forward side of the energy circle are just plain fun to be around. What more could we ask than to have fun with our children instead of considering them one more brick in our backpack of everyday burdens?

What's the best thing that happened to you today? What are you looking forward to tomorrow? What is the beauty you've seen today in your family?

Here are some more forward focus questions for enhancing every day's value, focus, energy, and communication.

* What has been the highlight of your day?

* What was special about that person/event/situation?

* What were the best parts of the concert/movie, etc.?

* What was it about this that you admired or enjoyed?

* What do you like best about a teacher, a friend, etc.?

* What is the value of that trait?

* What would be the benefit of that action?

* What are two or three things you are most pleased about?

* What is most important/fun/interesting about this?

* What are you most looking forward to doing tomorrow, next week, on that trip?

* What do you like best about yourself?

(Some additional forward focus questions that combine the Focus Tool and Teach Tool appear on pages 104-106.)

Copyright © 1994 by Steven W. Vannoy

About The Author

Photograph © Steven W. Vannoy

Steven W. Vannoy, author, speaker, and facilitator, founded Verus Global in 1990 with a vision to create resilient work cultures, more productive teams, and higher quality of life for all. Now, with more than forty years of business leadership experience, Vannoy is a recognized expert in building strength in corporations internationally, as well as creating sustainable, healthy cultures in workplaces, communities, and families. Learn more about Verus Global at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (July 23, 2013)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439147832

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“The greatest gift you can give your children is to read this book and use the powerful principles it teaches.”

– Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul

“A wonderful way to encourage your children to develop their own character -- from integrity to humor!”

– Spencer Johnson, M.D., coauthor of The One Minute Manager and author of Value Tales for Children

“Calling all parents finally, a real person, a parent, delivers the answers. Steven Vannoy identifies the questions and gives fabulous solutions. Where was he when I had little ones?”

– Judith Briles, author of The Confidence Factor and Woman to Woman

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