DEAR ABBY: I am a retired pediatric dentist who frequently treated children other dentists couldn't manage or preferred not to.
One rule in my office was that no child would ever leave without being complimented, regardless of how he or she had behaved during the appointment -- even if it meant saying, "You're the best spitter we've had all day!" Of course, we were absolutely sincere in our compliments.
One day a woman called to make an emergency appointment for her 5-year-old grandson, Pete. I learned that the little boy's 17-year-old mother had run away when he was an infant. His father (the grandparents' son) was in prison serving a 30-year-to-life sentence. That left this elderly couple to raise the child. My staff told her to bring him in immediately.
When they arrived, Pete was understandably nervous and fussy when my assistant brought him back into the operatory, but he soon quieted down. I gave him a hug and began treatment to relieve his infection and pain. When I finished, I complimented him and asked that his grandmother come in so I could explain what I had done. As we chatted, Pete was happily picking out a little toy from the drawer. We scheduled a follow-up appointment for one week later.
The following week, 20 minutes before his appointment, the door burst open and little Pete came running in looking for an operatory chair to sit in. I escorted him back to reception and told him we'd call him in a few minutes.
The second appointment went equally well. He was smiling and happy. I spoke with his grandmother again as he once more chose a little gift.
Then she said: "I still can't believe it. Every morning this week Pete jumped out of bed and asked if this was the day he'd come back to see you! I'd have to tell him 'No, not for another five days, then four days, three, etc.' This morning he was so excited when I told him this was the day he was coming in." Then she continued, "Do you know why he was so eager to come back?"
"No," I replied, "please tell me."
"Because," she answered, "you told him he was a good boy."
Abby, here was a 5-year-old child who had never been told he was a good boy! I still tear up when I think about it. -- (DR.) R.C. SMITHWICK, LOS ALTOS HILLS, CALIF.
DEAR DR. SMITHWICK: Thank you for sharing the reminder about how important it is for children to receive positive reinforcement. (Adults need it, too.) If you think something nice about someone, it takes so little effort to open your mouth and SAY it. I guarantee it'll make that person's day -- whether the person is 5 or 55.