The Lesson of the Crabs: Praise, Support, and Positive Affirmation
by Richard and Linda Eyre

Sometimes following our own “best nature” is the wisest thing we parents can do. Over the next several months, we’ll be presenting some natural advice in the form of easy-to-remember lessons from nature. Stay in touch with us by visiting

I (Richard) was born in Baltimore, and while I don’t have much actual memory of those earliest years, I still love hearing my mother tell stories of going “crabbing” on the Maryland shore. Apparently it’s fairly difficult to catch the speedy crabs but remarkably easy to keep track of them once they are caught because of their instinct to “pull each other down.” Once you have at least two crabs, you just put them in a shallow pan or bucket. A single crab could easily climb out, but if there is another crab there, he will reach up with his claw and pull the first crab back down before he can get up over the edge.

They don’t boost each other up or assist each other in their frantic quest to escape and regain their freedom. They do just the opposite. They pull each other back as though they can’t tolerate any of their number rising above their level or escaping without them.

This instinct, of course, is not limited to crabs. It is an unfortunate part of human nature to envy those who climb above us and to pull them down literally or verbally or at least within our own critical and judgmental minds.

Within families, siblings are often particularly inclined toward crab-like behavior, sometimes called “sibling rivalry.” And parents, even though they want the best for their children, sometimes feel instincts of resentment and resistence when a child wants to move up “over the edge” into a life style or pattern beyond what the parents have been able to obtain. Conversely, kids sometimes resent, criticize, and pull down their own parents when they feel they can’t meet their expectations or reach their level.

The lesson of the crabs is support and positive affirmation – doing the opposite of what the crabs do – lifting up instead of pulling down – praise, rather than criticism.

One thing that almost all parents know but that hardly any parents do is that children crave attention and that parents should, therefore, give more attention to positive behavior than to negative acting out. Stand in a busy mall sometime and watch parents and children walk by. Who’s getting all the attention? The kids who are behaving themselves are getting ignored. The ones who are crying or complaining or fighting with each other are getting all of their parents’ attention.

Once while we were living in Japan, we saw a simple, memorable example of “doing it right.” (Asian cultures are a little better than ours at recognizing the positive and ignoring the negative). We were chatting with a neighbor of ours, in her kitchen, when her little boy came in and began to pester her, tugging at her skirt, interrupting our conversation, whining, and being obnoxious. The mother completely ignored him. Finally, when he got too loud to ignore, she very matter-of-factly (and without even looking at him) scooped him up, opened the nearest door, set him on the other side, and closed it. It happened to be a closet. She continued her conversation with us all the while, as though nothing had happened. A moment or two later, the closet door opened and the little boy came quietly out and stood politely by his mother. When there was a pause in our conversation, he said, “Excuse me mother.” Now the mom gave him her full attention, listening to his need (it happened to be thirst) and gave him a glass of water along with an affectionate pat on the head and then a little hug. It seemed so simple. It worked so well. She had recognized and rewarded the positive and ignored the negative. She had lifted up rather than torn down. She had “caught him doing something good.”

Unlike the crabs, we must support rather than compete with each other. Unlike the crabs, we must look for ways to boost our children’s self-confidence rather than undermining or dragging it down. Unlike the crabs we must truly want our children to rise above and beyond ourselves. Unlike the crabs we must praise effort and reward honest attempts. And unlike the crabs, we must love our children more than ourselves and make their well-being more important than our own.

A mother told us of an experience with her four-year-old son. He had been at a playgroup where he was the only one who couldn’t climb to the top of the monkey bars, so he was feeling a little discouraged and “unconfident.” On impulse, mom lifted him up on her knee and started telling him the things she could think of that he was good at. “You’re good at throwing a ball,” she said. “You’re good at making your bed and you’re really good at making the baby happy when she cries . . .” She noticed that her son was smiling now, but he looked around, apparently trying to find something. “What do you want,” she asked. “A pen,” he said,. “I want a pen.” She pulled one out of her purse and he said, “Write those things down – those things that I’m good at.” “Where shall I write them?” she asked, glancing around for a piece of paper. “Here,” the little boy said, thrusting out his hand. “Write them right here on my hand – write one on each finger.” So she did. And she said her little boy wouldn’t wash his hand for two days.

Children need our praise, our confidence, our support, our “boosting up.”

A father had been learning about “deep affirmations” in a seminar at his work and decided to try it on his grown daughter who lived away from home and had a lot of stress at the moment. He called, got her answering machine, and just spontaneously left a long message filled with his love for her and his confidence that she would make it through the tough period she was in. He expressed his faith in her, recalling various times when she had met challenges and reached her goals. He told her how much she’d grown as a result of those previous difficult times and assured her that this one would be no different. He invited her to call him back and tell him the latest and promised he would just listen. He told her she was the best daughter anyone could have and reminded her again of how much he loved her and believed in her.

A few weeks later when they were together the daughter hugged her dad and whispered to him that she had saved that phone message and listened to it again and again, especially when she felt the lowest. It had given her the strength, the confidence, and the boost she needed.

Learn the message of the crabs. Use the profound psychological power a parent has to lift your children up to the best and happiest people they can.

One mother, realizing she was prone to criticism and constant correction of her eight-year-old son, but who sincerely felt that the boy needed every word of it, decided to adopt the “sandwich method.” This simply meant putting a slice of praise or positive reinforcement on both sides of the criticism or correction. If she had to say, “Your room still isn’t clean,” she’d first say something like, “Thanks for finishing everything on your plate at dinner,” and something like, “Thanks, you really know how to clean up when you try,” after.

One dad, in an effort to clean up high largely negative act, simply offered his kids a dollar for every time they caught him saying, “No.” He found he could always substitute something like, “It might be better if . . . “


Read the next article “The Lesson of the Bear: Helping Kids Become Responsible”

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