My birthday is this month. That means another year older (wiser?) and an opportunity to enjoy a couple of birthday traditions. One, we eat lasagna and cheesecake for my birthday. I love lasagna and cheesecake. Although my doctor may not agree, I think it is a great tradition. Two, I give gifts to my family. Nothing big—just something to let them know I love them and keep them in mind. Interestingly, they seem to forget this tradition every year. They always look surprised when I give them a gift. I like that. In a sense, I give myself the gift of watching my children’s face light up when I give them a “birthday surprise.” Although I enjoy giving gifts on my birthday, I think we give gifts to our children gifts all year. Not necessarily tangible gifts, but important gifts all the same. For instance, here are four gifts I believe our children benefit from all year round. These gifts change their lives for the better, help them mature, and improve their relationships.
First, give your children the gift of responsibility. Your children may balk at this gift, but it is a gift. By giving your children chores and responsibilities, they learn that their actions have meaning. They have the privilege of making a meaningful contribution to the home and family. Making a meaningful contribution enhances their sense of personal value. Yes, the gift of responsibility will keep on giving, contributing to a life-long positive self-concept and strong work ethic.
Second, give your children the gift of accountability. Although this gift is a tremendous gift, it does come with a cost to you and your child. That cost involves discomfort. To hold children accountable for their actions, we must allow them to experience the discomfort of negative consequences for inappropriate behavior. Watching children squirm in the consequences of their negative behavior usually means feeling discomfort as a parent. Most parents really do hate to see their children suffer. But, truly giving the gift of accountability will mean allowing your children to suffer discomfort at times. The true gift of accountability results in learning the difference between right and wrong, wisdom and foolishness. Accountability teaches our children to make wise choices, engage in mature behavior, and use wholesome, uplifting speech.
Third, give your children the gift of opportunity. I don’t mean just any opportunity. I am talking about the opportunity to sacrifice for others and to serve others. We often get wrapped up in giving our children every opportunity to learn, participate in community activities, and experience stimulating environments. These are good opportunities, but our children need more. They need significant opportunities, like the opportunity to serve and to sacrifice. Sacrificing for others can be as simple as giving up the last cookie or as significant as giving up time to help at a food kitchen. Service can be as simple as clearing the table after supper or as significant as a mission trip to a foreign country. Either way, the opportunity to sacrifice and serve begins at home. Build a home environment that supports and encourages sacrifice and service in your family and let it extend from your family to the community at large. After all, the opportunity to sacrifice and serve builds character, humility, and compassion. What a wonderful gift to impart to our children!
Fourth, give your children the gift of anonymity. I know, this sounds strange. We need to acknowledge our children. We need to make sure they feel recognized and accepted for who they are…value and cherish by their parents. However, they do not require praise for every little thing they do. In fact, too much praise can actually make children doubt the sincerity of the praise and, as a result, doubt their own ability. Sometimes, the gift of anonymity is just the thing they need to learn the value of their effort. The gift of anonymity teaches children to complete chores, engage in kind deeds, and work their hardest for the internal satisfaction of knowing they did well. So, praise children for their effort, encourage their work and progress. But, don’t overdo it. Allow them to succeed under the cover of some anonymity as well. Balance your praise with the gift of anonymity.
Quite the gifts, right? Parents can give these gifts to their children all year round. Our children may hesitate in unwrapping them, but they will eventually rejoice in the benefit these gifts offer—the benefit of becoming mature adults who know how to make responsible, wise choices and find joy in serving others.
Praise is a crucial aspect of effective discipline. When parents praise their children, they identify behaviors they like and encourage those behaviors to continue. In this way, praise helps increase the behavior we desire to see in our children. It can motivate our children to grow and mature. To prove truly effective, however, praise must follow four simple guidelines. So, to make praise a positive, effective motivator in your child’s life, follow these simple guidelines.
1. Praise your child for their effort. Focus on the process rather than the end product. Praise them for their persistence in working toward a goal, not just the final accomplishment. Recognize their hard work, even if they lose the game. Acknowledge their concentration in the face of distraction and thank them for listening so well to directions (not just following them). By praising your children’s efforts, you help them learn about the parts of the task they can control. You give them the gift of self-control. You teach them that effort, persistence, and concentration are more important than the appearance of success. And, you instill a joy in those attributes over which they have control–their determination to persist, their dedication to effort, their ability to concentrate. These qualities are within their control and the foundation for overcoming setbacks and finding ultimate success.
2. Keep your praise specific. Do not offer a grand, sweeping statement like “You did great” or “That is a beautiful picture.” Take the time to give a more sincere and specific praise. Note a specific aspect of the task that you found particularly praiseworthy–the way they passed the ball, the way they worked with their teammate during a specific play, the color combinations they chose for the painting, the angle of the photograph, the chord they chose in the song, the way their voice resonated on the high pitch, the beautiful 10-yard pass in the 3rd quarter, or…you get the idea. Make your praise specific. Your child will appreciate that you paid enough attention to notice the specifics. This expresses how much your value your child.
3. When you praise specifics, you can also be sincere enough in your praise to discuss mistakes and areas of improvement. Loving constructive criticism actually enhances the power of praise. Constructive criticism lets a child know that your praise is more than mere words. You really did pay attention. You noticed the specific things they did well. And, by offering an occasional constructive criticism, you communicate your belief that they have the ability to do better. Do not overdo this part of praise. However, do not avoid discussing mistakes either. I think a good ratio would be to offer at least 5 sincere, specific praises for every 1 constructive criticism. If you cannot offer 5 sincere, specific praises, you need to work harder at praise. You are not looking hard enough at your child’s effort or the specific steps your child has done well.
4. Finally, limit your praise. I know, this sounds contradictory. But, overpraising your child only leads them to disbelieve your praise. Studies have shown that children associate excessive praise with inability. They believe that teachers and parents give constant praise to those who cannot do the task and constructive criticism to those who have more ability. So, limit your praise. Don’t praise your child for every little accomplishment. Don’t constantly tell them what a “good boy” or “good girl” they are. Let them earn that praise is reserved for those actions that truly deserve praise. An older gentleman once complained to me that his grandchildren now have a ceremony when they graduate from preschool, a party when they graduate from kindergarten, a formal graduation from elementary school, and the school band plays when they walk for a diploma from middle school. In a world in which the Bachelor’s Degree is losing value, we emphasize graduating from preschool. “Really,” he asked me, “What did they accomplish to deserve a ceremony in preschool? If we give such notable praise for these smaller accomplishments, what will we do when they graduate from high school? How will they know they really have accomplished something when they earn their Master’s Degree? And, what will motivate them to achieve more when they get to college and find that the teacher is not there handing out constant affirmation?” Something to think about.
“Praise your children, it will increase their self-esteem and improve their behavior.” Well, at least that’s the message we hear on the street. In reality though, not all praise is equal. Some praise can actually interfere with your child’s success. It can actual contribute to your child’s failure. Yes, you read that right. Parents can ruin their child with praise. Let me explain four ways that praise that can ruin your child.
1. Praising children for global attributes like intelligence or ability sets them up for failure. This global praise (“You are so smart,” “You certainly are talented,” or “You are one great kid”) tends to create children who are extremely image-conscious and performance-oriented. They want to “look the part” of the “smart/good/talented kid.” To fall short of that label through a less than perfect performance would lead to embarrassment. To avoid that embarrassment, they may choose easier tasks or simply drop out of challenging tasks rather than face the stress of potential failure.
2. In addition, the child who receives global praise will seek constant approval while working on a task. The global praise of being a “smart/good/talented kid” prevented them from developing the internal motivation to enjoy completing a task for the sake of doing it. Instead, they need the constant motivation of outside approval. Without constant reassurance and encouragement, this child will avoid challenges and run from healthy risks. By time they get to college, they may just as soon drop a challenging class rather than risk being a “smart kid” who only earns a “B.” Global praise has taught them well. Unfortunately, it has taught them to “look good” and avoid any mistakes at the expense of growing through challenging tasks.
3. Praising global attributes of our children also teaches them that image, appearance, is the top priority. One way to maintain a praiseworthy image is to tear other people down. As a result, this child may become overly competitive. In the midst of competitiveness, they ridicule their peers in order to maintain their own “praiseworthy image.” They belittle and demean others in an effort to build themselves up and assert their own praiseworthy status as the “smart/talented/good” child.
4. Giving a child excessive praise sets them up for failure as well. Excessive praise distorts a child’s motivation, encouraging them to perform just to hear the praise of others. The child who receives excessive praise needs praise every step of the way. They never develop a sense of autonomy or independence. Instead, they constantly look to their teachers and parents for affirmation and assurance in the form of praise. Take away the praise and they quit performing as well. Without praise, they cannot persist in their task. Even more disturbing, they do not learn to engage in an activity or task simply for the sake of personal enjoyment. They have no intrinsic satisfaction or motivation.
Praising children for global attributes may create a child afraid of risk, avoiding of challenges, in constant need of approval and reassurance, and demeaning of others. Don’t get me wrong, though. I love praise. I do believe that we need to praise our children. Praise is effective and motivating…when done properly. Next week we will learn 4 secrets to making praise effective and motivating for your child.
My wife loves to capture our family events in pictures…and, rightfully so. Those pictures allow us to relive every joyful experience with our extended family and friends. Family shepherds not only take visual photos of family; they take verbal snapshots as well. When Sam falls down and begins to pout, his mother gives a comforting verbal snapshot, “Oh, you fell down. That hurt, didn’t it?” When Daddy leaves for work, Mom empathizes with a verbal snapshot, “Oh, you’re sad that Daddy has to leave. He’ll be back after work.” When Sue points at the fridge, her father gives a verbal snapshot of her gesture—”You want a snack, don’t you.” Little Johnny points at a dog and a click…his parents offer a descriptive verbal snapshot, “Look at that big, brown dog.” Describing behavior, labeling emotions, reporting emotion back in an empathic manner, and describing what our children see are all examples of verbal snapshots. Verbal snapshots help our children learn about their environment. They teach them the vocabulary necessary to talk about their world, manage their emotions, and show empathy toward others. Verbal snapshots also validate our children, showing them that we find them valuable enough to notice and accept. As a result, they learn to value themselves. So, click away. Take verbal snapshots every chance you get. Here are some verbal snapshots you won’t want to miss.
· When your child behaves well, take a verbal snapshot. A verbal snapshot of good behavior can be as simple as saying “great job” or “thanks.” When we give a verbal snapshot of good behavior, our children see a snapshot of our pride and gratitude. The attention they receive from the verbal snapshot also makes the good behavior more likely to continue. Give this verbal snapshot directly to your child as often as possible. Start with “Thank you…” or “I appreciate …” or “Good job…” and finish with a specific behavior you notice. You can also take a verbal snapshot of your child’s behavior for other people to see. For instance, you might tell a friend how well your child handled a difficult situation, express pride in their talent, or explain something positive you have learned from your child in the last week.
· When your child makes a strong effort or shows courage, take a verbal snapshot. Going through childhood and adolescence takes courage. There are constant changes in schools and teachers, “drama” among peers, and new experiences that test their abilities. Each time they try out for a sport or music program, they run the risk of “rejection.” Every time they ask a girl out on a date, they become vulnerable to rejection. Each test comes back with red marks of failure, even if they only miss one. So, take every opportunity to acknowledge your child’s courage and effort. When they stand strong in the face of peer pressure, take a verbal snapshot of that courage. When they try something new, take a verbal snapshot of their effort and courage. When they attempt to make a change and struggle with that change, take a verbal snapshot of their effort.
· When your child shows an interest in something, take a verbal snapshot. Whether they show an interest in music, cooking, reading, anatomy, or sports, take a verbal snapshot. Admire their interest. Join in their interest. Converse with them about their interest.
· When your child is frustrated, upset, or angry, take a verbal snapshot. Doing so validates them and their emotions. If they look hesitant on the first day of high school, let them know that you “can tell they seem a little nervous about starting a new school” and that you “remember feeling nervous on your first day as well.” Give a verbal snapshot when they break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend-“You really liked them, didn’t you? It’s disappointing when relationships don’t work out the way we want.” When you take a verbal snapshot of your child’s “troubling” emotions, don’t try to fix the situation or remedy the problem. Simply offer support. Empathize with them. In doing so, you validate their feelings. We all tend to feel a little better when someone validates our feelings and lets us know they understand our pain.
· When your child is happy or proud, take a verbal snapshot. Don’t limit verbal snapshots to those moments of pain or hardship. It’s easy to give a lot of attention to the negative behaviors, hard experiences, and painful moments. However, we don’t want our verbal photo album fill with those pictures alone. Take as many verbal snapshots of happy times as well. Give verbal snapshots that say, “I am proud of you.” “Good effort; you must be proud of yourself.” “I bet you’re pretty happy about that.” “I really enjoyed what you just did.”