By John Hoffman
If you are reading this, you’re probably the kind of parent who wants to do the best you can for your kids. And zillions of experts out there are ready to tell you — in minute detail — exactly what to do and say. It’s come to the point where I worry advice overload is making parents think that no matter what they do, it isn’t enough.
Take praise, for example. Experts have been worried for years about the way parents compliment their kids. First they wanted parents to help build kids’ self-esteem by being less critical, and more generous with praise.
Then came the backlash: We had to make praise constructive by tying it to specific accomplishments: “You got all of your pee in the potty!” as opposed to “What a big boy for using the potty!”
Sure, feedback related to a real achievement can teach a child more than a vague “Atta girl!” But now the constructive praise movement is getting out of hand. I recently read a parenting article that offered 10 rules for praising children. Ten? I have trouble remembering three!
More importantly, experts should not suggest (nor is it true) that there’s a perfect way for parents to speak to their kids.
The purveyors of perfect praise phrases do have some useful ideas. It makes sense, most of the time anyway, to commend effort more than results. Researchers at New York’s Columbia University asked kids to do an easy puzzle task. When they successfully completed it, some were told they must be smart and others were told they must have worked hard. Kids whose effort was praised were much more willing to tackle a more challenging puzzle for their next task.
So does that mean you’re a bad parent if you tell your child he’s smart? No. Nor does it mean that you must agonize over every syllable of praise you utter to your kids.
Sometimes human beings just say spontaneous heartfelt things to one another. And usually the message gets through loud and clear because of the feeling, tone of voice, facial expression or body language that comes with it. Communication with kids is partly about information and words, but it’s also about feeling.
Adults aren’t hectored to talk to one another in this carefully considered way. So, it’s OK to sometimes say “Wow. I love that painting” as opposed to “I can see you put in a lot of effort — 17. 3 minutes, to be exact. Your use of subtle shades of magenta and taupe made your (um, it’s a cow, right?) very lifelike.
Kids can tell when we’re not being real or quoting a script, just as surely as, in my own childhood, no adult fooled me with a reassuring “This won’t hurt a bit.”
Kids need to hear — along with all that perfect praise — the odd “You’re wonderful!” and “What a great kid you are!” Because childhood need not and should not be an endless succession of perfect lessons and conversations.
Originally published in Today’s Parent, January 2008