In the last few decades parents in many parts of the world have enthusiastically followed the positive parenting path constantly showering children with praise. But for some giving praise for a job well done has become like a nervous tic.
“You finished your meal. What a guy!”
“That’s the best work I’ve ever seen!”
“You are such a clever little swimming girl.”
“You used the toilet. Let’s ring grandma and tell her what a clever girl you are!”
Most parents are well aware of the notion of praise but are we going too far? Parents and teachers can praise children so much that it becomes a little like water off a duck’s back and so lack any real meaning.
Children gain their self-esteem from the messages that they receive and through their interactions with the world. The
main developmental tasks for under tens is to work out what they can do and how they fit into the world. Am I a chump or champ? is a question that concerns many children.
Praise has been promoted as the predominant parental tool to boost children’s self esteem. But like any tool it can be overused so that it becomes ineffective.
Too much praise can be demotivating. If a child is told everything he does is FANTASTIC then how will he ever really know when he has done something that really is fantastic. Sometimes mediocrity needs to be recognised for what it is – mediocre - rather than boosted to another level.
Alternatively, the more we praise some kids the more they expect it. And they soon become addicted to praise. If they don’t get a regular fix of praise they wonder what’s wrong.
Encouragement V’s Praise
Encouragement is a far more powerful esteem-building tool than praise and it doesn’t have the adverse side effects. The differences are slim but important. Encouragement focuses on the process of what a child does whereas praise focuses on the end result. Encouraging comments focus on effort, improvement, involvement, enjoyment, contribution or displays confidence whereas praise concerns itself with good results. An encouraging parent gives children feedback about their performance but they ensure the feedback is realistic and they work from positives rather than negatives.
An encouraging parent will note a child’s efforts in toilet-training and recognise that mistakes are part of the learning process so they are not too fussed about the results. Praise however is saved for a clean nappy and a full potty.
Encouragement recognises that a child is participating and enjoying a game while praise focuses on winning or a fine performance. Okay, the differences are academic and it may seem like splitting hairs but the results on the potty, in a game or even at the kitchen table should concern children more than they do adults.
As soon as we become more concerned about results than children we move into areas of children’s concern and out of areas of our concern. In short, praise is about control and encouragement is about influence.
How to encourage kids
Encouragement is a skill that can be learned. For it to be effective it needs to be applied consistently. Encouragement and positive expectations go hand-in-hand. Encouraging parents expect to kids to succeed, not necessarily straight-away, and not necessarily with ease. Encouraging parents recognise that kids will be anxious at times but they have faith in their ability to cope. They also value kids as they are, not for who they are going to be.
Here are four ways to encourage kids:
1. Practise empathy& show faith in them: Parents need to recognise kids’ genuine anxieties and fears but also demonstrate faith in their ability to cope. When parents give kids real responsibilities ranging from handing in a note at school to being home on time as a teenager they are indicating they have in their ability to handle responsibility, self-regulate and be independent. If parents discover their faith is not warranted then they need to renegotiate the guidelines with their kids.
2. Recognise effort & improvement: It’s easy to recognise jobs well done or completed tasks such as winning a contest, earning a badge at school or making a bed really well. How about kids who struggle? Focus your comments on effort and improvement. Help them set realistic goals in line with their capabilities and interests. Learning five new spelling words a week maybe more realistic than 20 words that his school may require.
3. Focus on strengths & assets: Fault-finding can become an obsession for parents, particularly when they have teenagers. Sometimes kids can have strong traits, which at first seem like liabilities. Kids who are determined to have their own way may seem rebellious and stubborn. They can be labeled difficult kids. But these qualities and behaviours have a positive side. Dogged determination to succeed is a valuable asset in any field of Endeavour and is usually applauded. Rather than criticize, step back and recognise the value of these characteristics. Similarly, focus on the interests and abilities that children possess in all areas rather than what they can’t do. If music is their forte rather than academic success don’t spend all your time pointing out the liability. Celebrate the strength instead. Often when we focus on kids strengths, assets and abilities in certain areas they improve in other areas as well. Confidence has a snowball effect impacting on all areas of life.
4. Accept of mistakes and errors: We live in a society that celebrates success and achievement. Perfect marks, immediate results and getting things right seemed to be highly valued. We forget at times that mistakes are part of the learning process, just ask any golfer. We tolerate errors in adults, but often we don’t in children. View errors as valuable learning experiences, rather than something to be avoided. Low risk-takers and perfectionists will often do anything to avoid making mistakes. Your ability to accept their well-meaning efforts in any area of endeavour, irrespective of the results, will go a long way toward to determining their attitude to mistakes.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting we don’t praise or recognise fine performances in any area of life. We just need to practise some restraint. Just as a child who gorges himself on lollies will soon lose interest in something that was once a treat, a child who is praised for every little deed will eventually need a veritable phrase book of positives to motivate him or her.
For more ideas to help you raise confident kids and resilient young people subscribe to Happy Kids, my FREE weekly online parenting guide. You’ll get a special Kids’ Chores & Responsibilities Guide when you do. Subscribe to Happy Kids at www.parentingideas.com.au
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