Instead of praise

 In my last article I introduced reasons why praise is so harmful to children's self-esteem, click here to read it.


The article caused much discussion and some despair - what on earth should I do instead of praise!?


Many said they didn’t implement praise in order to accent certain behaviors or to control the child, so it’s surely not harmful or even wrong.

But the point is exactly that: people praise without second guessing it - it’s completely socially accepted and expected.


Praise is a manipulation that selectively distinguishes behaviors and lets children know what we expect of them: Mummy is happy when I catch the ball - I must always catch the ball! Unfortunately this leads to self-confidence that is linked to outer conditions and externally motivated behavior: the child shares his toys to cash your ‘positive reinforcement’ not because the other child is then content.


Thinking it’s “ok” to praise children because they’re used to it, they expect it or because you “don’t mean it like that” is ok, sure, if you decide you don’t mind the consequences. And children don’t much care how you meant it; what matters is how it was received.


Changing the way we treat our children goes against the (main-)stream and requires deep thought and questioning and, well, hard work and awareness in order to break those habits.


People tend to do things that their fellow human beings do them (fitness trends, the choice of clothes or using a new word perhaps) - that’s how strong our social instincts are, so it will be hard to get out of the praising habit and it may even feel unauthentic at first, but in the end it’s just a habit and people are creatures of habit, which means you can acquire new ones relatively quickly.


Some people said they enjoyed praise and liked to feel good about themselves when praised - they didn’t want to give it up.

Praise shouldn’t be confused with attention or affection and affection shouldn’t be conditional. Appreciation and acknowledgment are human needs - we all have them in common. To say your child has done something super well isn’t showing this kind of attention, it takes the ability to be proud of him/herself from the child (as I explained in the last article), your words being about how you found it/liked it. And what happens when no one is there to give praise?!


Being autonomous in matters of self-perception will enable unconditional self-esteem instead of having the way you feel about yourself depend on how someone else grades you. When praise is part of life, self-confidence ebbs and flows instead of staying constant and secure.


Paying attention isn’t praising - show interest in your child’s endeavors; you can stop judging what you see and allow the child to find his or her own opinions.


I was asked what to do if children say things like “Look Mummy! I filled apples in the trailer!” My four year old son says things like this to me all the time. I reply something like “aha, the apples are in the trailer.” or “Cool there are apples in the trailer!” I happily state what I see. This is not praise - I’m not saying he is cool for putting apples in the trailer, but that it is cool that there are apples in the trailer now. Praise is “Hey! You filled apples in the trailer, good job! Well done! Super!”


When children do things that help others (for instance picking something up that fell on the floor or setting the table or helping to cook dinner) rather than saying “wow, you’re so good at helping, what a clever boy, good job, well done” (that coaxes the child’s attention to her/himself) or even paying them money for helping out (that trains children to have egocentric motives when helping), you could emphasize how it helped and what the effects for the other person are.


Or you could just say nothing because it’s completely normal to be social and really no surprise. “Well done, look at you sharing!” “Good girl, you’ve eaten!” “Good job, you pooed!” Come on, really?


Just because we don’t praise, doesn’t mean we can’t be ecstatic about something our child has done. You can like something! It’s just too weird to say “Oh look at that! It’s beautiful, I love it, you’re an artist, what a good job, how super and creative and clever you are!” and the child then saying “huh…I don’t much like it, actually.” And in reality both of you know it’s just a half-hearted blob of color on paper done while day-dreaming about wheels.


Our first words, when being shown a picture, could be questions that encourage the child’s opinion to enfold and we could listen to what our child has to say without warping it with our evaluation. A conversation based on mutual respect and equality could arise from such an interaction and you may even hear about all the lovely thought-patterns about those wheels your kid was day-dreaming about.


Relationships evolve to be steadier, balanced and equal and the child becomes more secure, balanced, confident, autonomous and opinionated when praise doesn’t stand between the parent and child.


There are many traditions and beliefs that are redundant. I aim to call them all out.


I invite you to take your liberty and join the revolution!


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