As adoring parents, encouraging our children should come naturally, right? Not for me. Sure, I knew how to help, coax, cheer my kids on, and I assumed those actions were the essence of encouragement. But through child specialist Magda Gerber, I learned that what actually encourages our children is far more subtle. To my surprise, most of her advice was the exact opposite of what my instincts were telling me to do. Magda taught me that providing true and lasting encouragement is about fostering self-motivation and inner-directedness. And since I had always felt lacking in these personal qualities myself (and wanted something better for my kids), this perspective not only made complete sense, it also resonated with me deeply. Here are some of Magda’s ideas that I’ve tried to practice with my own kids:
1. Don’t try. Instead: Trust.
Encouraging kids is not as active a process as I had once thought. It’s basically about facilitating rather than doing. Children feel our presence and sense our emotions and intentions, so our trust in them as capable, unique, evolving individuals is the most valuable support we can give them.
2. Don’t cheerlead (“You can do it!”), praise (“Good job! Good girl!”), or coax (“Come on… just give it a try”). Instead: Calm yourself and reflect what you see (“You are working hard on that. It’s really difficult.” Or, “You did it!”).
My impulse is to assure my child (and reassure, and then reassure again) that I’m in her corner, rooting her on and 100% believing in her. But what I’ve learned is that children are magnificently aware beings that feel more genuinely supported when we don’t try to push or sell it. I’ve also realized that my impulse to actively demonstrate support for my kids mostly stems from my own discomfort with the possibility they might fail or become frustrated. In other words, my child doesn’t need this feedback as much as I need to give it to her. That was a big Aha for me. So, calming myself is the best way to keep the air clear of pressure and urgency that might make a simple task or struggle seem of paramount importance.
3. Don’t direct or fix. Instead: Be patient and fully attentive, providing only the most minimal direction needed for children to be able to accomplish self-chosen tasks themselves.
(I share details in 5 Best Ways to Raise Problem Solvers)
4. Don’t sympathize or attempt to actively comfort frustration. Instead: Allow, accept, and acknowledge feelings.
Sara shared her experience helping out in her son’s kindergarten classroom (which illustrates points #3 and #4):
I’m in my Dylan’s classroom on Mondays – the kids come to my table to do a little drawing/writing exercise, and I set the intention before each group arrives at my table that I want each kid to feel seen and heard by me… I try to carefully acknowledge each of them when they’re frustrated with what they’re doing or happy with their outcome, and it’s so gratifying watching their little faces light up. One little girl was trying to draw a shirt on her person and was having a hard time… She asked me to draw it for her and I told her I could see how hard she was trying and that I’d give her my full attention while she kept at it… She gave me the most pleased smile, drew her shirt and beamed… When I saw her the following week, she came up to me, held my hand and said she wanted to draw again with me. Melt.
(There’s more advice about handling frustration in my podcast: How to Help a Frustrated Child)
5. Don’t project your own agenda or urge to get it done and done “right.” Instead: Let go and enjoy the surprises.
Betsy’s story illustrates:
If I had shown my two year old what to do with this puzzle he found at grandma and grandpa’s house, I would have missed the beautiful moment when he looked up at me to explain, “I’m lining all butterflies up to dance.”
Thank you for being the voice in the back of my head, constantly reminding me to step back and let my babies find their own way.
Thanks so much to Sara and Betsy for sharing your stories (and photo)!
I share more in my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish)
(Thumbnail photo by Jude Keith Rose)