Does your child feel you think she is a capable, competent human being with a worthwhile future?
One of the most powerful influences on whether or not a child feels we think she is capable and competent is how we treat her. What are our words and actions saying - what are they telling our children? I admire and respect you? I am genuinely interested in what you think and how you feel about things because your thoughts have value? The best way to show a child we think she is capable and competent is by treating her like she is capable and competent. That is what our words and actions need to be accomplishing. (If a child is inappropriately interrupting, behaving poorly, or manipulating us in some way, a loving and effective development & discipline response is needed.)
I will never forget the time a friend of my parents came to visit. Even though I was only twelve at the time, he treated me like a mature person worthy of his attention. He listened to me carefully and thoughtfully. He seemed genuinely interested in me and what I had to say. It felt great to be honored and respected like that. I felt really good about myself when I talked with him. I behaved my absolute best because he treated me like I was a capable, competent, and valuable young man. That encouraged me “see” myself as a capable, competent, and valuable young man. It had a profound effect on my self-image, my self-esteem, and my attitude and behavior. If our lives are busy, we cannot really afford to ignore results like that.
In the day to day and sometimes minute to minute adventure called parenting, it can be so easy to absentmindedly skip the admiration and respect. When our children are out of line or giving us unnecessary grief, it can be difficult and almost unnatural to treat them with admiration and respect. Even so, we need to try. Here are some things to watch out for.
Do not try to “correct” feelings. Even if our intentions are good.
“Of course you don’t hate your little sister. You love her.” (It doesn’t feel like love.)
“There is nothing to be afraid of. You are just being silly.” (But I am afraid!)
“You don’t really think that.” (I think I do.)
If this happens often enough, our children can end up not trusting their own thoughts or feelings. Since they are being told that what they think or feel is wrong so often, the child will begin to doubt himself. That is the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish here. Respectfully acknowledging and empathizing is the better way to go.
“Sometimes little sisters can be so frustrating. What does she do that drives you the craziest?” We need to be a good and patient listener. If appropriate, we can slowly and gently work our way towards the upside of having a little sister once he has had his say.
“What is it about that dog that makes you afraid? (Not an accusatory, “Why are you afraid of that dog?) Respectfully acknowledge his fear. Let him describe it if he can. There might be an opportunity to talk him through his fear, but we should not rush or force it.
The goal is to acknowledge, respect, and value his thoughts and feelings. That is a great way to let him know we thing he is capable and competent.
Do not give constant and unasked for criticism or correction. This is an easy trap to fall into. Sometimes we are completely unaware how relentless we can be. But for some reason, it is pretty obvious when other parents do it.
“Hold it with two hands! Be careful. What did I tell you? No, no, OK. Careful! You almost spilled! Watch what you are doing. How are you ever going to learn doing it like that? Just put it down. PUT IT DOWN NOW!”
“Stand closer to the plate. Lift the bat higher. Raise your right elbow. Higher.”
That might be OK if she asked us to help her with her batting, or we are her actual coach. It is not OK if she is trying to have some fun playing baseball, and we just can’t manage to keep our mouths shut. Especially if we are doing this in front of other people. If we keep this up, she will learn to hate doing anything in front of us. That is certainly not what we are trying to accomplish here.
I had the eye-opening experience of watching a well-intentioned mom scold or correct her child at least once every few minutes for over an hour.
“Get off that chair!”
“Don’t play with that!”
“Put that down this minute!”
It was relentless. The mom was determined to raise a well-behaved child who did no wrong. It was painful to watch. It was like the child was in a shooting gallery with nowhere to hide. Do you think that child feels his mom thinks he is capable and competent?
When it comes to trying to “correct” feelings or giving constant criticism, we need to remember that many little things add up to a big deal. Those many little moments are going to determine what our children think and feel, not any grand gestures. “You are so smart and capable,” will not overcome hundreds of little actions or comments that say the opposite. We need to be mindful of what comes out of our mouths and the affect it is having. That includes judgmental or shaming looks as well.
PRAISE is not always a good thing! You would think there is no way we could possibly go wrong saying nice things to our children, but research and reality say different. It turns out that what we praise and how we present that praise can make a big difference. At its best, praise can build up and encourage a child. At its worst, praise can actually end up causing insecurity or an unhealthy cluelessness. This is a little tricky, so to help us sort things out, we are going to call troublesome praise “misguided praise,” and we are going to call helpful praise “encouragement.” We are going to focus on only the major issues because this subject could easily fill a book of its own.
Tends to be superficial without detail. You are so pretty.
Tends to target end results versus actions or effort. You got an A on your test! You scored a goal!
Tends to target things the child has little or no control over. You are so tall.
Tends to evaluate and make subjective judgments. You are the best soccer player on your team.
Tries to be more involved and detailed. I thought that was really cute the way you did that side ponytail today. Where do you come up with these creative ideas? What did your friends think?
Tries to target actions, effort and character issues. I noticed how hard you studied for that test. Are you happy with the results? That extra time you have been working on your kicking and shooting seems to really be helping your game. Nice goal. How’d that feel?
Tries to target things the child has control over. You did a great job mowing the lawn yesterday. That was pretty nice of you to share your game with your little brother. Thank you for being so polite to Mrs. Wellington.
Tries not to evaluate or make judgments, but instead shares observations and feelings. It was so much fun watching you pass the ball so quickly and accurately. That pass to Billy when they double-teamed you was awesome. You look like you are having a great time out there. How do you feel about today’s game?
You might have noticed encouragement requires more from us. We need to actually pay attention and remember some telling details. We also need to decide what it is we should be encouraging. Did you notice how much more conversational and relationship oriented the encouragement is? There are good reasons for that.
Because misguided praise tends to target end results or things the child has little or no control over, it can create identity traps for the child. If a child is consistently praised for these types of things over and over it can actually cause insecurity and fear.
“You are so pretty, you are a great tennis player, you are so gifted in science, etc.” Over time a child can begin to equate their value and worth with the target of these praises. I am valued because I am so pretty, a great tennis player, a science whiz, etc. That all by itself is a problem, but it gets worse. The child might begin to fear that if she loses that attribute, she will also lose her parent’s admiration, respect, and love. That is where and when the insecurity and fear come in. I have to be pretty. I have to be good in tennis. I have to win a spot at the science fair. Because of all the praise directed at those things, a child might believe he has no identity or value outside of those things. That can cause panic and tremendous stress. Especially, if those attributes begin to change. It can also cause resentment, “Why can’t they just love me for me. Why isn’t that good enough.”
Another downside to targeting end results is we can get it terribly wrong.
“Wow! Another A in math. You are my awesome student! Oh, a B- in history. You might want to work on that. Great job on that math test!”
The back story: Our daughter can get A’s in math with very little effort, but history requires significant effort just to maintain a C average. She has trouble organizing and understanding the material, partly because it is so boring to her. She spent twenty minutes preparing for the math test and three hours preparing for the history test. Boring or not, she put in a heroic effort. She wished she had done better, but she is happy with the improvement, and she is incredibly proud of her hard work. Maybe, with some more hard work, she could get a B in history by the end of the year.
What do you think she thinks of our “praise?” Do you think she noticed we highly praised a minimal effort in math and discouraged the heroic effort and improvement in history? How do you think she is feeling about us right now?
Misguided praise can easily miss important opportunities like this because we have not taken the time or effort to look deeper. Encouragement requires us to look deeper, and it also gives us a chance to get a much more accurate and complete picture so we can adjust our praise if necessary.
“Another A in math. Well done. Does it come easy for you or do you have to work at it? I also see a B- in history. Isn’t that a little better than last time? How do you feel about that grade?”
Hopefully, our easy-going questions will get her to open up so we can know what we really should be encouraging.
“I am so proud of how hard you worked on that history exam. Three hours of preparing, wow! Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m glad you are pleased. Let me know when your next test is so I can cheer you on. And by the way, it is kind of cool how easy math is for you. Lucky you.”
If we haven’t been paying attention, we can still show real interest and curiosity using open ended questions, “Were the tests hard? Are you happy with your grades? Was one test easier for you than the other? Etc. We can ease into the conversation and get the information we need to give some on target encouragement.
With encouragement, we are trying to praise real effort, overcoming challenges, good character, etc. while still acknowledging successes and natural abilities. We also are trying to open up a conversation to get important feedback. Research has shown that children who are praised for hard work and persistence tend to develop those attributes while children who are only praised for end results or natural abilities tend to head in the opposite direction. When things start becoming more challenging, they are quick to give up. As parents, we really need to pay attention to this.
Because misguided praise tends to be superficial with little in the way of specifics or details, low self-esteem children might reject it outright. They do not see themselves that way. They think we are lying to them just to cheer them up. That tends to make them feel even worse. If this keeps happening, parents will lose the ability to speak positively into their children’s lives.
Encouragement tries to find a way around this problem. To succeed we need an open and easy-going dialogue and some undeniable facts we have observed.
“I saw you help your little sister carry her stuff up the stairs. I think you are a good brother, and she is lucky to have you. What do you think?”
“Mom, it’s nothing. I’m not a good brother.”
“I know what I saw, and I know what I think.”
“I think your basketball skills are improving. What do you think?”
“Dad! I’m the worst one on the team.”
“I don’t know about that, but I do know you used to miss most of your foul shots and now you make over half of them. You also seem much more confident dribbling with your left hand. I think that’s improvement. What do you think?”
“Dad, why are you trying to be nice?”
“Thank you for thinking I am trying to be nice. I just want to point out I have noticed your basketball game is improving. I have seen you practicing in the driveway. It’s fun watching you work and get better. Are you having fun out there?”
Some children will develop a highly inflated sense of their abilities if we keep giving them misguided praise that cannot be supported by reality. “You are so great. You are so good at that! You are so smart, strong, capable, etc.” If the misguided praise just keeps coming no matter how little the child tries or how poorly the child does, the child won’t feel any need to work harder or improve. That never works out well. We can end up with a child who thinks he is the greatest, but he has terrible work habits, and no one wants to hire him.
*About ten years ago, American teenagers placed 19th in an international math evaluation, but those same American teenagers rated themselves 1st when asked how they thought they had done. The South Koreans were almost the exact opposite. They came in 1st or 2nd in the math evaluation, but rated their own performance fairly low. I think both groups are pretty messed up, but who would you hire?