So today I posted on Facebook that by clipping your toenails until the polish grows out you can spare yourself from using harsh chemicals on your feet. I was trying to be funny, but somehow I ended up saying that I don’t clip my toenails. I had to delete it so innocent readers didn’t get assaulted by this unhygienic talk. Really ladies, my Facebook page is where it’s at.
It reminded me of this time in Italy when I thought I was calling myself a genius. The word genius in Italian is genio. Since romance languages have masculine and feminine cases, I switched it to genia when describing myself (think chico for boy, chica for girl). Nevermind that the cases apply to adjectives, not to nouns.
I called myself a genia a few times in an ironic way, and when I started getting weird responses I thought, geez, these Italians must not get sarcasm. Then I looked it up again… instead of calling myself a genius, I’d been calling myself a genital. A genital. To at least 15 or 20 of my fellow church going friends, none of whom had bothered to correct me. Or ask me which genital I was referring to.
Anyway, I do clip my toenails and get manicures and take a bath. And I’m not a genius nor a genital. Thank you.
Today I’m continuing my series on the 7 Crippling Parenting Behaviors That Keep Children From Growing Into Leaders. My first two posts were Why parents shouldn’t rescue their children too quickly and How to let our children experience risk without being negligent.
I have always been happy to give compliments when I saw fit, but I couldn’t have imagined what kind of compliment monster I’d turn into after becoming a mother. “Oh my goodness, look at those cheeks, those are the best and squishiest and softest cheeks in the entire world. Every mother is jealous that I get to kiss those cheeks.” I say ridiculous things like this everyday. To every child. Honest to goodness. It’s some kind of sickness.
Because I love them so much I also tend to over-praise. Or rather, I tend to praise heavily in areas that aren’t so important because it’s easier than praising in areas that are. Interestingly enough, even my 3-year-old stares at me funny when I give her a compliment that is too exaggerated. It’s helped me reign myself in.
So here are some thoughts on how we can praise our children without making them think they’re something they’re not. And praise them so they know what they are.
1. When relating to identity issues, you can’t praise enough.
Children need to know they are loved unconditionally by you. This doesn’t mean you condone their every behavior, but that your love isn’t tied to their behavior. You can say “I’m so glad you’re my daughter” and “I love spending time with you” until you’re blue in the face. This type of praise will affirm their identity in your family and their worth as your child.
Effective praise relating to their unique talents could be “God has given you a gift of music.” This affirms a truth while “you’re the best piano player I’ve ever heard in my entire life” is just plain ole not true. I take that back. It may actually be true to you in that moment because love is blind and deaf, but it’s not helpful to them.
2. When relating to performance, praise realistically.
We might think we are helping our children by telling them how truly outstanding they are at everything they do, but we’re not. The Forbes article reads:
“Kids eventually observe that Mom and Dad are the only ones who think they’re awesome when no one else is saying it. They begin to doubt the objectivity of their parents; it feels good in the moment, but it’s not connected to reality.”
When children get older they’ll pick up on praise that doesn’t ring true. It will become embarrassing to them. Your child doesn’t need to be perfect to be praised and you can always find something true and positive to say. The key is not to attempt to build their self-esteem based on exaggerated compliments that are just not true.
3. Praise effort not genetics.
Nurture Shock devotes an entire chapter to this. Children who are praised for factors outside of their control (intelligence, beauty, etc.) they become adverse to effort. They think – since they are so smart – that everything should come easy. Soon they avoid challenging things because the mere fact something is a challenge makes them feel stupid. Maybe they aren’t as smart as everyone said. Maybe something will be hard. This leads to procrastination and avoidance.
Praising effort does exactly the opposite. It encourages hard work and endurance. Read my post on this for a bit more info, but suffice it to say, this was very interesting to me. A research study was done on this issue. Children who were told they were smart under-performed those who were told they’d made a good effort. Those who were praised for their effort worked harder, longer and made better scores on difficult tests. And these students were on the same level!
In short, praising for effort says “I’m proud of you for trying” which encourages them to try again next time. Praising them for something outside of their control (like being beautiful or the smartest kid in the class) makes them feel better than others.
4. Don’t be afraid to offer constructive criticism.
I’m an honest person, and some might even call me blunt. But even I find it difficult at times to offer constructive criticism when I can see my children have tried hard. What has helped is to praise their effort so far, then offer an encouraging word. If my daughter has colored a Care Bear page only using the black crayon entirely out of the lines then I might say, “Great detail on the little circles you drew. Let’s try to color in certain parts of the bear next, you might like how that looks even better.“
If it’s something that is not a matter of right and wrong or skilled and unskilled, praising effort is fine. If it’s a school assignment you know they will be graded for, constructive criticism will help them, not harm them. As they get older it will be important for them to know that you believe in them and love them. If these foundations are set they’ll be far more likely to listen to your advice.
5. Don’t shield them from all disappointments.
“When we rave too easily and disregard poor behavior, children eventually learn to cheat, exaggerate and lie and to avoid difficult reality. They have not been conditioned to face it.”
As mothers there are many things we will naturally shield our children from. It’s why they need parents! However, there will be some situations when we want to shield them and we probably shouldn’t. They might not win the essay contest, the spelling bee or the relay race. Just because they lose doesn’t mean the other people cheated or the contest was rigged. It’s life. In life, you don’t always win. Disappointments provide a great opportunity to help teach our children about what really matters. We won’t always win, we can’t shield them from this fact of life.
In short, praise away until the cows come home about things that tell them they are special to you. That they belong in your family. That they are dearly loved. Praise truthfully about their actions or performance. And praise their efforts with gusto!