Discouraging encouragement: the kind of praise that doesn’t help

As I was ignoring my children and zoning-out on the old Facebook for a time recently, I found myself considering a post from the Conscious Discipline feed.  Conscious Discipline is all about attuning to our kids and bringing them up – can you guess? – consciously.  It’s a wonderful resource for parents, for teachers and anyone who works with kids.  I have come to look forward to their daily tips. That day I read the following:

Conscious Discipline’s 6 Principles of Encouragement:

1. We are all in this together
2. Contributing to the welfare of others builds self-worth.
3. How you “see” others defines who you are.
4. We are all unique, not special.
5. Some forms of praise can be discouraging. Effective praise relies on describing, not judging.
6. Children need encouragement, especially when they have made “poor “ choices.

praiseI found myself pondering number 5.  Don’t get me wrong, they are all important – especially number 6, but number 5 is one that many families I know struggle with.  I have struggled with it too, as a parent and as a therapist.  Why is number 5 so important?  What are encouraging forms of praise and how can praise actually be discouraging?  For many of us, having suffered a lack of praise as kids ourselves, it’s hard to understand that not all praise is beneficial.

Effective praise relies on describing, not judging.  Believe it or not, “good job” can actually be discouraging.  “Good” is a judgment, just like “bad” or “stupid,” only it is a positive one.  “Good job” is a non-specific and non-descriptive judgment about a performance, a blanket response that, well intended though it may be, can wind up leaving kids feeling empty.  What??  You balk.  Think of it this way, which feels better when you say it to yourself: “You worked really hard on that proposal and it paid off.”  “You are so resourceful.” “You found the perfect balance of sweet and savory for that sauce.”  Imagine how it would feel if a loved one said that to you. Now imagine the same person telling you “good job” in the same situations. Which one makes you feel more valued? With specific, descriptive praise, we feel known and appreciated. We feel that this very important other person really sees our unique qualities and understands our challenges (see #4 above). For children, this is what builds self-esteem. This mirroring is in fact so incredibly important, it is the very foundation of a child’s sense of self.

This kind of descriptive encouragement is akin to Self Psychology’s “accurate empathy.” When a loving other understands the core of our emotional experience; or in play, when a loving parent understands what the child is “working” on, and reflects it back, we come to know ourselves as people. This can be a real challenge particularly for parents who never received this kind of empathic reflection from their own primary caregivers; but with practice it can come to be second nature. A mother/son couple I work with in family therapy overcame this obstacle, and it was the very thing that turned their relationship around. In play therapy the two would basically play next to each other, like parallel-playing toddlers, despite my efforts to get them to connect. It broke my heart that Anna was so starved for this kind of connected play herself that she could not attune to her little boy and offer it to him. Eric had almost given up on bidding for his mother’s attention. I encouraged Anna to try to praise him and get interested in what he was doing, but she just couldn’t. So I attuned to her, and offered Anna accurate empathy wherever I could, modeling it for her. She began to be more generous with her praise, and hope grew inside Eric. Then one day, she cheered for him, “You did it!  You stacked all those blocks by yourself!”  Eric beamed. Their play began to take on a different tone, an intimate turning towards each other, as Anna’s confidence grew and Eric’s did too, with her attuned reflection.

While attuning to our kids’ play and reflecting with accurate empathy builds their self-worth, rote responses such as “good job,” can lead to feelings of inadequacy.  Don’t get me wrong; even the most attuned parent pulls this one out in times of need.  We all do (1.We are all in this together). But when it’s relied upon too often, it creates a bit of a vortex.  Is a good job the point of play?  What do our kids want us to know about them?

A former client once found her son sobbing over a mess of fallen dominoes.  “What’s wrong?” she begged and to which he wailed,  “I didn’t do a good job!”  He folded under the pressure to perform that he had already internalized at six years old.  Play is about process, not performance. When kids set up domino cities, they are working on planning and engineering, spatial relationships, cause and effect, make believe – not just the product of a performance. Showing them that you understand what learning, what yearning is fueling their play, or their meltdown for that matter, is what builds self-confidence. Another former client was so determined to be a different kind of mother than her own had been that she praised her toddler with “good job!” for everything, out of sheer love and devotion. And this little girl was doing a good job!  She was developmentally advanced in many ways even, but she was starting to protest. She was growing defiant, feeling unseen by her mother despite all her efforts to praise her. She began to retreat into her own private fort, self-imposing time-outs at only two years old, just to get space from the loving and ever-watchful eye of her mom. When this mom decreased the good jobs and replaced them with more accurately empathic responses, mother and daughter discovered joy through their connection where before there had been anxiety and tension.

Happiness expert Christine Carter, Ph.D of “Raising Happiness:  Science for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents” has called for us to do away with achievement and focus on the process. In so doing, she says, we will raise kids who are secure and brave enough to dream and paradoxically, to achieve.  Our kids need to know that we value their process, not so much their products.  If you are truly feeling pride and admiration for your child’s work, then let her you’re your feelings with an “I Statement” like “I’m so PROUD of you!” or “I love your __________!”  Show them that you understand and value their struggles, ideas and play, and watch your relationship thrive.  (And by the warm this goes for adult relationships too!)

If you liked this post, you may also like: A Parenting Manifesto

Jenny Kepler

Jenny Kepler

Jenny Kepler is a marriage and family therapist from the Bay Area who has been helping families welcome babies and navigate parenthood for over 10 years. Her office is in downtown Portland, OR where she does in person therapy with adults, couples and families. She also does teletherapy and parent coaching over the phone for people who can't see her in Portland. Jenny specializes in counseling people who are struggling in their relationships due to anger, depression and anxiety, helping them to discover joy, vitality and resilience.

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