"You are SO smart."
"What a pretty little girl you are!"
Sounds good, right? Familiar, perhaps, as you praise your child all through the day? Of course, you are doing this from a loving and well-intentioned place. However, praise of this kind can sometimes displace just what our children need the most.
Yes, displace. Stay with me here. I know praise for all they do seems like the way to grow those strong-from-the-inside-out kids. But as we give what feels like encouragement to our children in just the above way, we can undermine their ability to be intrinsically motivated—firing from inside themselves as they tap into their strengths and abilities to, on their own, pursue all things in life. We can undermine their growth as a strong inner-directed person.
Think about this: If we tell a child "Good job!" when they willingly get dressed in the morning, what does this communicate when they have a hard time getting dressed the next morning? That they are doing a 'bad job?' This is what a child 'hears,' and it does little to help them decide, on their own, to want to get dressed in the morning.
If we tell a child "You are so smart!" when they bring home an assignment they got 100% on, how do they feel when they come home with one marked with 75%? Or when they find themselves struggling with homework? If we've told them they are so smart, then they may feel like they are failing when they struggle. "I'm supposed to be so smart. Why can't I DO this??"
If we tell our daughter how pretty she looks as she prances out in her frilly red dress, what are we communicating is important? How she looks? How could this influence her over the years...as a teen...if how she looks becomes the go-to response she gets from us?
What CAN we do? Oh so much.
Describing what you see rather than praising is essential for our children to grow intrinsically motivated and to feel authentically affirmed. Here's how that can look:
- "You chose the red frilly dress! And you buttoned all those buttons by yourself. That took a lot of work."
- "Wow. That took a lot of brain work to come home with 100% on your assignment. I bet you feel really good about how your hard work paid off."
- "I see blue, green, black and yellow in your picture. You chose to use a LOT of the yellow! And look how you went round and round with your marker to make so many circle shapes."
- "Look how strong your muscles can be! What effort it takes to carry the bag all the way up the stairs. I appreciate your help."
- "What a commitment you've had to your training. I can see how happy you are to make the team at school!"
- "Math can be hard! Look at all the problems you've accomplished. You've concentrated on this for a long time."
- "Your friend is happy you shared your toy! What a kind thing to do."
- "It takes a lot of courage to climb up so high. When you are ready, you can give it a go."
What is different? Now you are focusing on their abilities, strengths, qualities—things you want to encourage as they help our children become more confident, feel more capable, able to take risks, to rally from mistakes, to move through struggle.
To know "I can really use my brain" sets a child up to work through a tough homework problem in an empowering way. Hearing "You are so smart!" can leave a child at a loss when they don't do well on a test, or when they can't figure out a problem. Using "You CAN be" instead of "You ARE..." gives a child the chance to be something else.
Take time today to pause as your child shows you the work they've done. Describe what you see, including the feelings of your child. Notice the L-O-N-G brush strokes across their painting and say something. Notice the colors they chose and tell them that's what you see. Pay attention to what they called upon to get through a tough moment and name it for them. Ask them questions about what it took to accomplish what they are grinning from ear to ear about.
Use struggles as a time to name and affirm their feelings, rather than find something to praise in order to 'make them feel better.' Use struggles as a time to identify the inner strengths they are trying to tap into to succeed. For example:
- "That puzzle is really difficult. It is frustrating for you! I can see you are working really hard to figure it out."
- "When your friend says those things it hurts your feelings and I can tell you feel sad. What might help you right now?"
This is important. Growing children who feel empowered, authentically affirmed and intrinsically motivated is key for living well all through life. It makes your job as a parent easier as your child can now move through struggles more successfully, can call upon their own selves to solve something, can make healthier choices with peers, and feel truly competent and capable.
Give it a try and notice what is different as you focus on your child's abilities, their process and the qualities you want the most. I believe you'll see just how your child is growing in amazing ways...and they'll "see" it, too.
Now when you find yourself throwing out the inevitable "good job!" or "you look so pretty!" now and again? No worries, for you've tipped the balance towards emphasizing just what you want the most—children feeling strong from the inside out.
What a gift to your child and to your relationships!