By Mark Brandenburg MA, CPCC
We hear a lot about how important it is to praise your kids. We should let them know how great they are at everything they do, right?
The problem with this notion is that at some point, your kids come into contact with the real world. Your kids will start to notice that their drawings aren’t really “great,” when compared to someone else’s drawings.
In fact, your kids will hear the words, “great job” about six million times in their lifetime. After awhile, this kind of praise loses its’ impact. Praising your kids adds on to a world already filled with judgment. And while occasional praise isn’t a problem, it’s the steady supply that is. A parent’s job is to help their kids be more aware of themselves, and more aware of their own preferences. Because when they go to school, when they compete in sports, and when they spend time with their friends, there’s constant judgment about who’s better, smarter, or more popular. And this judgment clouds a child’s ability to be aware.
Your kids will be getting a good dose of judgment from all these places, so it’s helpful to provide a place at home where they can escape some of it. And you can do this by holding back your own judgment on them, and by being curious.
My kids would often comment on how well they could do something. They’d say, “I’m no good at drawing people,” or “I can’t shoot a basketball.” I would usually start asking them questions about it. What was it specifically that they didn’t think they could do? What happens when they try to do it? What did they like about this activity? This last question was an important thing to ask them. When we could focus on exactly what they liked about it, they could see the activity from a different angle.
Many parents will try to convince their child that they are “good enough,” and this usually gets you an argument you can’t win. “No, I’m not!” is a difficult belief to argue against.
Praising your kids can condition them to seek approval. Instead of doing things for themselves, they try to impress others. Your kids can begin to depend on outside opinion, rather than listening to their own voice. When this happens, you’ll notice that your kids are becoming “pleasers.” Instead of finding joy in what they do, they become addicted to the compliments and praise that can come their way.
But when it doesn’t come, they feel lousy.
Praising your kids doesn’t create kids who are committed to doing better, and who feel good about the things they do. It does help create kids who are committed to receiving more praise. And it can help create kids who are less self-motivated to develop their skills, and to try new things.
So if praising your kids isn’t effective, what should you do? There are certainly times when you’d like to delight in what they’re doing, and to give them feedback. It’s possible to give your kids positive feedback, and show your appreciation for what they’re doing, without using praise. Avoiding praise doesn’t mean you have to withhold the love you have for your kids! But there is a way to encourage your kids in a more effective manner. Here are some ideas:
• Ask them to judge things themselves: Rather than constantly telling them how you feel about what they’ve done, ask them how they feel about it. “What do you think about this drawing you made?” or, “How does that seem to you?” are great questions to ask.
• Use “I” statements, don’t label your kids: If my child draws a picture, you can respond to it by saying, “I like how you mixed the blue and green colors here.” If they play a soccer game, you can say, “I noticed how hard you ran out there,” rather than, “You’re a good player.” This stays focused on what you noticed, not on labeling your child.
• Ask them curious questions that allow them to share their experience: When your child makes something, ask them about how it was for them. “How did it feel to make this?” or “How did you think of putting these things in your picture?” are perfect questions. They allow your child to share their experience with you.
• Focus on the child’s own joy in what they do: Kids have a natural desire to become better. Our job is to foster that internal drive to get better, by helping our kids know what they enjoy about what they do. If I say, “Wow, how was that? You looked like you had fun,” I’ve allowed my child to focus on what it was he or she liked about the activity. And if they can focus on what they enjoy, they’re more likely to keep learning, and having fun!
When your kids can get more of a sense of the “journey” and not the destination, they’ll be a lot happier. And they’ll spend a lot less time in judgment of themselves.
When your message is genuine, good things tend to happen. So don’t feel as though you can never praise your child. Just make sure your feelings are clear when you speak to your kids. Remember your kids will get thousands of judgments and offerings of praise. And make sure you know that praise will not help create a young man or woman who has a strong and lasting sense of self-esteem.
But your educated, genuine, and enthusiastic responses to them will.
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