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What Happened When I Stopped Praising My Child

Some things are guaranteed to trigger my parental auto pilot: teetering first steps, messy scribbles presented with pride, the toddler singing to the baby (rather than catapulting him from his bouncy chair). Suddenly I hear myself uttering phrases many of us are very familiar with.

“Well done!”

“Aren’t you clever?”

“Good girl!”

And what’s wrong with that? Surely our kids benefit from having their accomplishments and good behavior praised?

Apparently not. According to a growing number of experts, our well-meant words may not have the positive effects we intend.

So what’s wrong with praising our kids?

First let’s clarify – we’re talking about evaluative praise: statements that pass judgement, such as “Good job!” or “You’re so smart!” Here are a few reasons why many parenting educators and psychologists suggest avoiding evaluative praise:

1 | It reduces motivation and enjoyment

Evaluative praise often focuses on end results, rather than the effort or skill involved. This type of praise can be motivational but as human behavior and education expert, Alfie Kohn, explains in “Unconditional Parenting” there’s a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation:

“Intrinsic motivation basically means you like what you’re doing for its own sake, whereas extrinsic motivation means you do something as a means to an end – in order to get a reward or avoid a punishment.”

Kohn argues that extrinsic motivation erodes intrinsic: kids’ interest and enjoyment in the activity diminishes as they become seduced by the reward or praise.

2 | It lacks meaning

Evaluative praise often doesn’t mean much, especially if used frequently and with little reason. Think about the difference in the following:

“Thank you for being patient while I did the shopping.”

“Good girl, let’s go.”

What do we want to achieve when we offer praise? Are there more effective ways to convey pride, to motivate, or give thanks?

3 | Its effect on behavior is limited

So, let’s assume “good” behavior is our aim. Psychologist, author, and founder of Aha Parenting, Dr. Laura Markham, warns in “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids” that “praise works only while you’re there to dispense it. For instance, children who are praised for sharing begin to share less unless adults are watching.”

4 | “Clever girls and boys” are less likely to tackle challenges

Research by psychologist Carol Dweck concluded that praising intelligence (i.e. “You’re good at math”) promotes a “fixed mindset”: children believe their intellect and talent are fixed, so are less likely to persevere with challenging tasks. By contrast, children with a “growth mindset” trust that applying effort will help them to overcome difficulties.

However, Kohn advises against praise of any kind, cautioning that all praise teaches children that “attention, acknowledgment, and approval must be earned.

So what’s the alternative?

How to encourage without using evaluative praise

Descriptive praise involves observing and commenting on kids’ actions and strategies. We can describe what we see, and how it impacts others, without imposing any judgement. Arguably it isn’t actually praise at all.

Michelle McHale, Director of Attachment Parenting UK, prefers the term “observational encouragement,” while Dr. Markham talks about “unconditional positive regard,” which she describes as: “Noticing your child and affirming him, his activities, his self, and your love for him – rather than evaluating him with conditional praise.” 

As Melissa Hood, Director of London-based The Parent Practice, writes in “Real Parenting: “We want our children to take responsibility for their own behavior and evaluate what they do for themselves, rather than rely on what other people think.”

This all resonates with me. Rather than teaching our kids to seek external approval isn’t it better to support them as they learn, grow, and gain confidence in their abilities?

Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish, in “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk,” speak of the adult “describing with appreciation” what they see, enabling the child to then praise themselves. The role of facilitator appeals to me; helping our children to recognize and take pride in their own achievements.

I thought about when and how we would usually offer praise, and found alternatives. I made a list and stuck it on our refrigerator:

Just be there : Give attention, not praise

Describe :“You did it! You drew a picture with green and blue crayon.”

Explain the impact : “You gave Charlie his toy; that made him happy.” Or, “Your friends really enjoyed playing here today because you shared your toys.”

Discuss : “You filled another page in your sticker book – how did you decide where to put them all?” Or, “You went to the bathroom on your own; did that make you feel proud?”

As a side note, our daughter is a toddler. Clearly these phrases would need to be adjusted for an older child.

Parenting without praise

As we began this shift in approach, I felt some initial resistance. I wanted my daughter to feel appreciated and the impulse to simply say, “That’s great!’ remained strong. But I remembered McHale’s words from the APUK Positive Discipline Course:

“Encouragement can sometimes be wordless. Children will sense our pleasure or appreciation and more than anything they will appreciate our attention and interest without having their actions and behavior specifically recognized.”

As I sat with my daughter, I wondered: does it make us feel good too, to praise our children? Parents of young kids spend a lot of time saying ‘no’ and redirecting; it’s a relief to say something purely positive.

Does praising our kids also validate our parenting somehow? I certainly have days when I question the job I’m doing. Could saying, “Good sharing!” when it’s all going well be a bit of a self-administered pat on the back?

A few days into our new approach, I noticed some changes:

1 | I pay more attention

Evaluative praise is a quick, easy response, especially while juggling laundry and dinner prep. Descriptive praise requires more thought and effort, but my daughter is clearly boosted by my interest which, in turn, seems to extend her interest in the task at hand. 

2 | We talk more

Had I not asked what the scribbles were in my daughter’s latest artwork I wouldn’t have known that it was Grandma in a rocket ship, with a sandwich in case she got hungry. I enjoy conversations like that.

3 | Positive behavior

Yesterday my daughter said, “Watch me be kind,” as she gave her baby brother a toy. I would far rather hear that than, “Watch me be a good girl.” I replied with a simple observational comment, and she toddled off looking very pleased with herself.

Obviously we’re in early stages here and it’ll be interesting, in later years, to see how this approach works as our kids face higher stakes challenges. But I can see already that our daughter appreciates this kind of encouragement.

I’m pleased that we’ve switched off autopilot and are attempting to interact with our kids in a more mindful way. I plan to keep working at this, to keep noticing and discussing, and above all to heap attention on our children, not praise.  

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Ah, back to school time. The excitement of a new year for our kids and the impossibly busy schedule for their mamas. Anyone else get to the end of the day and think, "What did I even DOOO today, and why am I so exhausted?" 🙋

Luckily, finding a system to help you plan out your days can help reduce stress and improve your overall quality of life—which we are all for.

Here are eight planners we love that'll quickly take you from "What is happening?!" to "Look what I did!"

1. Day Designer

Day Designer

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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A new school year is looming and while a lot of parents are looking forward to seeing their kids take the next steps in their education, many of us are not looking forward to getting everyone back into a weekday morning routine.

Mornings can be tough for kids and their mamas. One of our favorite celebrity mamas, Kristen Bell, does not deny that mornings with her daughters, 5-year-old Lincoln and 3-year-old Delta, aren't easy at all.

"It's miserable," Bell recently told POPSUGAR. "It's awful no matter who's doing what. And I'll tell you right now, the 3- and 5-year-old aren't doing jack."

Anyone who has ever tried to wrangle a preschooler out of their pajamas, to the breakfast table, then into their school clothes and backpack at seven o'clock in the morning knows exactly what Bell is talking about. She says some days are better than others, but it's hard to know what level of kid-induced chaos you're gonna wake up to on a weekday.

"It depends on their emotional stability, it depends on their attitude toward each other, toward life," Bell told POPSUGAR. "It depends on their developmental stage."

Luckily, Bell has got some backup. She's been open about how she and her husband, Dax Shepard, practice a tag team approach to parenting, and sometimes, Bell gets a chance to tap out of the morning routine. Unfortunately, Shepherd's later schedule means it doesn't happen as often as she would necessarily like.

"I don't want to say that I do more mornings than he does, but if you were to check the records, that's probably what you'd find," she told POPSUGAR.

If, like Bell, you're really not feeling mornings with the kids, there are a few things you can try to make things a little easier on yourself, mama.

1. Change the conversation

Instead of saying "hurry up" or "get in the car, right now,"try to mix up your vocabulary a bit.

If there's a need for speed, remind the kids that it's time for "fast feet" or that you're racing to the car.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, you might consider sharing that with your kids. Let them know that mama's got a lot to do this morning and that it would be a huge help if they could make sure their water bottle is in their backpack.

2. Make breakfast ahead of time

If cereal isn't your jam or your kids need something hotter, and more substantial in the morning, cooking up breakfast can be a major hurdle on hectic mornings.

Check out these Pinterest perfect make-ahead morning meals, like breakfast enchiladas or egg muffins, and make mornings a bit easier on yourself, mama.

3. Bring some Montessori into your mornings

Help your kids take control of their AM destiny by bringing some limited choices (like clothing) into the morning routine and allowing for natural consequences (like having to settle for an apple in the van because they missed breakfast) but also allowing for fun with mom.

"Try doing something simple, with clear boundaries, such as reading two books before it's time to start the morning routine. If they're ready early, you can spend more time together, which is also a great natural incentive," writes Montessori expert Christina Clemer.

Here's to a less stressful AM routine for Kristen Bell and the rest of us mamas. Just because it feels miserable today doesn't mean it will be tomorrow. There is hope, Kristen!

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It was a year ago when I was pregnant, parenting a highly-spirited preschooler and also working a full-time job while trying to maintain a part-time side business when I got to the point of I have had enough.

I can't remember exactly what the trigger was, but like most times, it wasn't just one thing but a build-up over time that culminates in a massive meltdown.

You see, I was not getting much appreciation or validation for all of my contributions. This was a time when my partner, too, was working full-time and in graduate school two evenings a week. It was stressful for everyone, but, as the wife and mother, I carried the family through it by tending to the little details: the pick-up and drop-offs, the shopping, the cooking, all the minutiae of everyday life.

So, after perseverating on my laundry list of seen and unseen responsibilities, I decided to sit down with pen and paper and make a "day in the life" list from wake-up to bedtime that showed my partner exactly what my day entailed—a day that supported two other people in the house and one in the oven.

Even I was surprised to see all of the things listed out in 15-minute increments. On paper, it actually looked even worse than it felt. I thought to myself about how much physical, mental and emotional energy I expend in this hectic season of our lives. And I didn't regret it for a minute.

However, back to my original complaint…I still wanted to be validated for it. I needed to be seen for both the implicit and explicit tasks and expectations in my day-to-day.

So I handed my list over to my husband, expecting him to be awakened to the fact I was indeed working in overdrive and for him to be grateful for all the ways that I take so many burdens off of him so that he can be successful in school and his career.

Instead of that, his response almost put me into a state of shock. He read over the list and then said, "I know. You are Superwoman."

His words, like kryptonite, left me speechless. Part of me knew that his intent was for this to be a compliment, but it felt so invalidating. It completely missed the mark, and instead of leaving me feeling appreciated, I felt less understood.

Superheroes have innate superpowers that I imagine they use with ease. In fact, they are expected to use their powers and perhaps that is their sole purpose. No one ever looks to a superhero and asks, "Do you need a break?" And as a feminist, I sure as heck believe women are strong and powerful. But the idea of being labeled a "superwoman" did not feel empowering.

I already know I am efficient, capable, strong and fierce. But, I am also fatigued, sometimes overworked and underappreciated, and worst of all expected to be the one that keeps it together for everyone else.

What I learned about through my research of who Superwoman really is was this: her powers always wear off by the end of the story. Turns out these so-called "superpowers" really are temporary. That I can relate to.

I am only human and there are days and weeks where I feel on top of the world, days where I can manage it all with ease. I can be up all night nursing a baby, take both kids to school, and show up on time for a 9:00 am meeting with a French pastry I baked from scratch. I can push through the exhaustion and demands every day…until I can't.

And it's not just my spouse who uses this label. I have well-meaning girlfriends who have also tossed the term out there as if it was meant to be a feather in my cap.

When things get tough, I appreciate the texts of support my girlfriends send me. Even when they are far away, it's nice to know someone cares when everyone in your house has the stomach flu while your partner is out of the country. It's comforting to be able to share the ups and downs of trying to balance a career with a growing family.

But when the text comes in and says something like, "I don't know how you do all that. You are a supermom!" I feel like there should be an auto-reply that says, "Connection lost."

The thing is, I don't want to be elevated to superhero status for living my life. It is not heroic and it's probably not too far off from what every other devoted partner and mother provides their family. But, this is what I think we need, what we are starving for. We need someone to say, "How are you doing?" or, "What have you done lately to care for yourself?" or, "Thank you for all that you do and who you are."

Those are the kinds of words that let me know I am seen and make me feel validated when I am working the hardest. They let me know that the people I love the most see me, and not a cape.

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