The Way We Praise Matters

In this episode: A parent wonders if the praise her children are receiving is unproductive and could make them feel pressured to “meet the expectations of whatever a compliment implies.” While this mom acknowledges she’s dealing in subtleties, she’s wondering if Janet has any insights.

 Transcript of “The Way We Praise Matters”

Hi there. This is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I have a question about praise. This parent is interested in how to give positive feedback without using value judgments, and I thought this was great because praise is a misunderstood topic and I’m excited for the chance to weigh in on it.

Okay, here’s the email I received:

“Dear Janet, thank you so much for all the insight you have shared. It has helped our family immensely as we work every day to raise our children differently from how we were raised with respect, with kindness and with authenticity.

One aspect we’re not perfectly clear about is giving positive feedback authentically without putting unintended or intended pressure on our kids to meet those expectations of whatever a compliment implies. With activities, we’re very consistent, ‘I love hearing you play sing, watching you dance. You look like you’re having so much fun. How does it feel to twirl? I really enjoy your paintings. I see you use seven different colors on this one,’ and so on.

One dearly loved caregiver is extremely verbally adept and we love her influence. She’s fond of verbal encouragement and it comes through in the children. When they see us working hard, they offer phrases like, ‘Good work, Momma or you’re working very hard with that shovel,’ et cetera.

Here’s my question, our children will say, ‘That was very thoughtful/generous of you to share or you are the best momma in the whole wide world and you were so brave when the wasp stung you.’ Those last three are the kinds of phrases where my ears perk up and I feel like things are starting to tilt toward an adult imposed value. But it’s such a fine line between genuine appreciation of an action, ‘Thank you for helping me find that clean washcloth,’ is a clear authentic sharing whereas, ‘Thank you for being a helper,’ starts to cross over into setting up the ‘helper/non helper dichotomy’. Would you agree?

I’ve stayed away from discussing the subtleties of these phrases with the caregiver and my husband because I honestly do not see them causing serious harm unless they are used in a manipulative way.

But again, there are times when that is not clear. For example, ‘Would you please be a helper with me right now? I see you’re having a hard time hearing me and we need to get up to the bath, so we have time to read a book.’ The use of being a helper there bothers me, but I wonder if I’m overthinking it. If you have insights to share with us, we would greatly appreciate your support.”

Okay, well this is the kind of note that I could geek out on for several hours because I actually think she is way overthinking this, but I tend to do that too. I love to toss things around and pull them apart, especially on this topic: the topic of raising our children and being what this mother calls, she actually nails it right in the beginning… She says, “One aspect we’re not perfectly clear about is giving positive feedback authentically.” So being in an authentic relationship with our children from the time they are born is the challenge that my mentor, Magda Gerber gave us as parents.

What does that look like? What does that feel like? To be honest and authentic with a tiny human being, who maybe isn’t even talking yet, who we obviously want to encourage to be a good person… How do we do that? That’s another conversation. How do we encourage children to have these character traits that we admire? Mostly we do that by modeling and that goes for authenticity as well. So if we want to raise children who are authentic adults, we have to show them what that looks like by being authentic with them.

But to put this all in perspective, every word we use with children is not this heavy, important thing. And I would especially not be so concerned about the words that other people use with my child because the most important relationship, the most defining relationship for our children is the one that we, as parents have with them, as primary caregivers. So that matters most. It sounds like this caregiver the family has is wonderful, she seems great. She’s so enthusiastic, she’s so encouraging. I would not overthink her at all.

She sounds very much in the ballpark of everything that you’d want in a caregiver. It’s really okay if she doesn’t live up to our authentic ideals. The most important thing is that she cares about the children, that she appreciates them and enjoys them. And it sounds like, in this case, she definitely does.

So I want to go through all the different examples this parent brings up because I think they’re all interesting in terms of seeing our authenticity as kind of a shape sorter that some things will fit through and other statements we make or words we choose don’t quite fit as well.

What drew me into Magda Gerber’s approach was the clarity of it. I am a cluttered person in terms of stuff. I’m working on that. But what I have with parenting, with our relationships with children and our role with them, what they need from us, is very, very clear because of Magda. Magda’s teachings have been affirmed for me again and again and again through my own children and through the families that I work with, which just gives me more conviction in the clarity of this approach.

And when we have clarity, we actually don’t have to go over everything we say or search for words or wonder how to handle certain situations. We are on that path and if we do kind of veer away, we’ll notice that, that doesn’t fit with the way we want to be. We’ll have that monitor for ourselves.

And with encouragement or praise and Magda liked to say, “Instead of praise, acknowledgements.” Let’s acknowledge what children are doing.” It’s all about being real with them and when we’re real with them, we don’t do what this parent is concerned about, which is putting pressure on them to meet our expectations. They don’t feel manipulated by us through what we’re saying. They feel our sincerity, they feel our relationship with them.

So let’s start where this parent does. She says she doesn’t want to put pressure on her kids to meet those expectations of whatever a compliment implies. Yes, she wants to be authentic. Perfect. She says, “With activities, we’re very consistent. I love hearing you play, sing, watching you dance.” So yes, if that’s true, we might absolutely say those things.

But we wouldn’t say them just to try to get our child to dance more or sing more, that we feel like somehow there’s a deficit and we need to build them up by telling them how much we love what they’re doing. The thing about children is they’re so intuitive, especially with their parents. They know. They know when we’re gushing and it’s not quite anchored in sincerity. It’s not even so much the words we say, although there are some fixed mindset words that Carol Dweck studied that we do want to avoid. Things like, “You’re smart,” which children could feel is the label they have to live up to.

Saying you’re a good this or a good that can get in our children’s way. Rather than, “You love to spend a lot of time doing this.” So yes, there are some “fixed mindset “words that we don’t want to say. But generally, it’s not about what we say, it’s about our intention. And if, again, our intentions aren’t quite pure, that will come across, so, “You look like you’re having so much fun.” Yes, absolutely, if that’s genuine, “How does it feel to twirl?” Sure, if we really do have that interest, if that’s where we go when watching our child twirl. But not because we want them to talk more about it, not because we’re trying to teach them more about it or have them explore it through our little subtle direction. No, just because that’s where we went, “Wow, how does that feel?” Our intention will come through and it will affect the way we say something.

“I really enjoy your paintings. I see you used seven different colors on this one,” and so on. Sure, if that’s genuinely something that comes to our mind when we look at that. But this is a little controversial because that’s a common one that we hear suggested…

When I’m looking at paintings, I’m not usually counting the colors, so I wouldn’t say it just to say something. I wouldn’t say it just because we feel like again, that our child needs us to bolster them when they’re doing these activities. I definitely wouldn’t say it in an interruptive way. If my child is focusing on something. I wouldn’t do something that jars them a little and now they’re counting colors instead of being in the moment of what they’re doing, in that flow. That’s the most important thing that we want to protect.

So when we acknowledge can matter. One of the easiest ways to know when we’re not interrupting is when our child stops and looks at us and then we might say, “You’ve been working hard on that. I’m enjoying watching you,” or something else that we’re genuinely thinking right there. We don’t have to come up with a response. We don’t have to try to find a way to encourage our child. What encourages them is our presence. So if we are actually watching them when they’re creating, then they feel that without us saying anything. Children are so in tune to us, they can feel when they have our attention.

So even some of these ways of talking to children that are commonly recommended, like talking about the colors, don’t necessarily have that pure intention on our part. So they might not quite fit through that shape sorter of authenticity.

Then this mother talks about the caregiver who, again, sounds fantastic. I love this woman. She says she’s fond of verbal encouragement and it comes through in the children. So now the children are saying these wonderful, encouraging things. I mean, just the fact they want to say this stuff is so sweet and lovely. She says they offer praises like, “Good work, Momma.”

“Good job” gets a lot of bad rap, rightfully, because it is kind of used as this stamp of approval that can be said automatically on our part. And if we think about it, again going to that honest intention, it can be a little manipulative, “Oh good job, good job.” I want to keep you doing this. I need you to keep doing this. I need you to keep helping me. So I’m just going to give you this sort of empty praise again and again.

So there’s a reason it gets a bad rap, but there’s also a way to say “good job” to somebody that’s quite authentic, where you’re looking in their eyes and you know that they’ve been struggling with this and now they do it. And you might then genuinely say, “Whoa, good job.” And it’s not the end of the world because you said, “Good job.” It’s about our authenticity. It’s about our intention. No ulterior motives. I just want to connect, just sharing with you how I feel, what I’m noticing. That’s the reason to say these things,

“You’re working hard with that shovel.” Working hard, that’s not a value judgment. You can tell when somebody’s working hard.

So I wouldn’t worry about your children echoing that kind of language.

So here’s the part she’s questioning, “That was very thoughtful, generous of you to share.” Thoughtfulness and generosity are quite specific and if we are saying those kinds of things authentically, your child is not going to go to, If I don’t do these things, I’m not being thoughtful or generous and that’s a bad thing. So it’s quite different from when we say, “Oh good job, good job, good job.” And then if our child doesn’t get that response, then they have to assume it was a bad job.

But thoughtfulness, generosity, kindness, bravery. She says, “You were so brave when the wasp stung you.” These are all traits that we want our children to learn about, to learn what they mean. And maybe we see that as, Oh oh, if I’m not generous, that’s something bad. Children don’t necessarily see that way. Kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness, there’s certainly nothing wrong with using those terms, when they’re true and when we’re really genuinely noticing that.

“You’re the best momma in the whole wide world.”. Well you can’t not like that, it’s sweet and it’s the kind of thing we say to our close loved ones. I wouldn’t question that, there’s no reason to. But this mother says, “Those last three are the kinds of phrases where my ears perk up and I feel like things are starting to tilt toward an adult imposed value.” I don’t think that’s imposed. I’d see those as human values that we do want our children to rise to.

She says, “It’s such a fine line between genuine appreciation of an action, ‘Thank you for helping me find the clean washcloth.'” She says, “That’s clear, authentic sharing.” Absolutely, whereas, “Thank you for being a helper,” starts to cross into setting up the helper/non helper dichotomy.

So to me, it doesn’t fit through the shape sorter because we wouldn’t say that to anyone but a child. “Be a good helper.” We would say, “Thank you for helping me. Can you help me please?” So yeah, that’s more of a value judgment, I guess, that you are a helper or you aren’t a helper. But in the scheme of things I wouldn’t be concerned.

The interesting thing is, again, when you start to get into this and you take all these weeds out of the picture and you can really see clearly, you really see your child as another person in your relationship, somebody you would never dream of being dishonest with or manipulative… I’ll dangle this bit of praise if you help me out, we won’t be able to go there.

So this mother says, “I’ve stayed away from discussing the subtleties of these phrases with the caregiver and my husband because I honestly don’t see them causing serious harm.” Absolutely, I would not nitpick around these ideas. I would just explore this for yourself, so that you can be clear. And then she says, “But again, there are times when that is not clear. For example, ‘Would you please be a helper with me right now? I see you’re having a hard time hearing me and we need to get up to the bath. So we have time to read a book.’ The use of being a helper there bothers me, but I wonder if I’m overthinking it.”.

So I wouldn’t worry about your children echoing that kind of language.

So yeah, “be a helper” is just unnecessary and it kind of puts child-speak into this, where we’re talking a little bit down to the child.

And then I wouldn’t necessarily myself say, “I see you have a hard time hearing me,” because for children it’s usually not about hearing. It’s about moving. It’s about doing the thing that we want them to do. So the way I would rephrase that is to say something like, “Could you please come now, so we have time to read a book?”

And then I would also understand that if this is bedtime especially, it’s really, really difficult for my child to make these transitions at the end of the day and I would be there with my arm around my child saying, “I’m going to help you. Yeah, you’re having a hard time coming on your own. So we’re going to go in because I want to have plenty of time to read to you.” Knowing that our child needs help, that it’s not about repeating myself or saying it differently or thinking that my child isn’t hearing me.

So that’s basically it. Those are my insights, just that everything needs to be authentic. And if we have these other intentions or motivations, to really look at those and say, I must be having a hard time trusting that my child can really enjoy these creative activities. Or that I can see what’s really going on here. That it’s not that my child is not being a helper, they’re just having a hard time in that moment. This clarity will free us to be the kind of parents we want to be, to be proud of ourselves and our relationship with our children. And we will see the results of that. We’ll see that we’ve instilled these qualities in our children.

I really hope some of that helps.

And please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. Both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast. Or you can go to the books section of my website. Or you can go to the books section of my website. can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in E-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and apple.com. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in eBook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble an apple.com.

Also, my exclusive audio series, Sessions. These are six individual recordings of consultations with parents discussing their specific parenting issues. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com. That’s sessions, plural, audio.com. You can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20. Sessionsaudio.com.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

 

 

2 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Important discussion. What it all comes down to is: What is the motivation behind delivering whatever praise is being delivered? It’s pretty unnatural for a parent to be “still faced” the child does something that delights. If it’s purely and authentically emotive, it can’t do much damage. When the praise has some intention behind it, it probably does some-to-a-lot of damage. Since “Mindset” became a movement, Carol Dweck, herself, has discovered that praising for effort is not much better than praising for “smarts”, because both praises are intended to manipulate the child into some self-concept or behavior.
    We want kids to develop their own evaluative structure for their own behavior based on the direct feedback they get from it, not indirect feedback from the bystanders.
    All parents and other educators should keep their eye on self-actualization, which consists of three things: maximizing 1) internal motivation, 2)decision-making, and 3) directly observable feedback–consequences. If one of the consequences is praise from bystanders, especially parents, that is various forms of distraction from the main thrust of their efforts toward self-actualization. If I fall, it is my pain (or lack thereof) that matters, not my parent’s empathy (which might very well not be empathy, but projection.)
    What a parent cares about comes from the parent’s experience and self-concept. We are interested in the child maximizing his/her own self-concept through continual interaction with the world. What the parent feels and thinks is marginally interesting.

  2. Hi Janet, I’m glad you wrote about this because I acknowledge instead of praise and do my best to be authentic, but lately my girls, 4 and 2, are always telling me to watch them do something. “Look mom” “watch mom” over and over. I don’t always want to. Whether I’m engaged in something else or it’s something I’ve already seen them do over and over. How do I best respond authentically and respectfully?

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