There is a lot of discussion over the past few years around the brain’s neuro-plasticity and the ability for our brains to be “rewired,” in a manner of speaking. One recent discovery is that our brains are naturally wired to pay more attention to our negative experiences than our positive ones, because at our most basic, primitive survival-based level, our negative experiences are teaching moments that, if paid attention to, can allow us to learn to not repeat the same mistakes. But, despite our natural proclivity to pay more attention to our negative experiences and emotions, our brain’s neuro-plasticity allows us to change this. We can train ourselves to emphasize and focus on the positive, which, in turn, makes us more happy and well-balanced individuals.
In our zeal to give our children positive re-enforcement, it is possible that we, as parents, could be doing more harm than good. To make sense of this seemingly contradictory position, I turned to our favorite licensed family therapist Vinay Gaglani. ~ Anouck Iyer
You Either Have It or You Don’t
A: On the topic of giving our children compliments, what are your thoughts? Are compliments toxic to our children’s personal growth? With so much recent focus happening around “rewiring” our brains to accentuate the positive, the whole notion of toxic compliments seems to be contradictory. How can compliments be toxic?
V: As with so many parenting issues, there is so much more nuance than many headlines suggest. Are compliments toxic? To describe anything as toxic is to convey the intention behind that action is malevolent, intended to cause harm. That would certainly not be in a child’s best interest. However, I believe that, in and of themselves, compliments are typically intended to make the receiver feel positive, recognized and acknowledged. You are asking about possible unintended effects of compliments and praise, so I’ll first touch on truly toxic compliments briefly.
Compliments can be harmful, or toxic, when they are used with the intent to manipulate behavior in a certain direction, to make things easier for the parent, yet have a negative impact on the child. We naturally compliment certain behaviors over others. We want our children to learn pro-social skills because it helps them develop healthy relationships. However, Dr. Leon Seltzer describes in his article, Praise as Manipulation: 6 reasons to question compliments,* some caregivers that may praise children to “reinforce conduct that simply makes them more compliant, pliable, or easier to deal with.” This is done “…through highly selective, manipulative praise– systematically encourag[ing] that child to refrain from sharing or asserting their thoughts, feelings, wants or needs.”
In contrast to what Dr. Seltzer describes, there are many well documented studies regarding the effects of praise on children. A lot of attention has been given to Carol Dweck’s (Professor of Psychology at Stanford University) work on fixed vs growth mindset. This includes the studies of fifth graders being given different kinds of praise, and their willingness to try something more challenging, or not. To summarize, students whose effort was praised, regardless of outcome, were more likely to try harder even if a task seemed more challenging, than students whose talent or ‘smartness’ was praised. This is because effort is seen as being within one’s control, ( a student can decide how much effort to put into a task to achieve success) whereas talent, or being smart, is seen as something fixed, something you are born with, and you either have it or you don’t. Students who were praised for being smart were less likely to try a more challenging task in case they didn’t succeed, as this would indicate that they weren’t, in fact, smart. Therefore, complimenting effort is seen as far healthier than telling children they are smart, as the latter tends to put the brakes on their efforts, their creativity and their bravery to take risks.
Just the Way You Are
A: Taking this into consideration (being more aware as to how we structure our praise), what other steps can we take to raise our kids to be self-confident, self-reliant and positive without edging into toxic territory?
V: It is very much our natural instinct to want to give our children feedback for their behaviors and choices. However this can be tricky when children perceive that their worth lies simply in doing things correctly, rather than being who they are. Because when our worth is dependent upon others’ feedback of our accomplishments, what happens when we make mistakes? Do we believe that our worth goes down? How do we avoid the trap of self-worth and self-esteem being conditional upon our successes?
I think self-esteem and self-worth build through the combination of both our accomplishments, and an unshakable belief in our basic goodness. This integrity is present simply because we exist. Being able to see oneself as capable, as a result of efforts and actions that are within one’s control can be a powerful positive experience for a child. This is as true at school as it is socially, in friendships. For example, being able to make someone feel better is an extremely rewarding experience. In the family setting, contributing to routines and schedule flow, and caring for our most beloved of loved ones makes us feel valued and necessary for the general functionality of the family unit.
Even though our children may falter in their efforts and that they may have bad days, say unkind things to their loved ones, etc, their worthiness doesn’t change or diminish. It is essential they are able to make amends, start over, try again. Without that basic sense of self-worth, it can be all too easy to think that one mistake spells doom, with no opportunity for forgiveness, making it much far more difficult for a child to keep trying and keep striving. It takes a healthy level of self-esteem to be able to apologize for an interpersonal mistake, or to weather the feelings associated with not working to the best of one’s ability at school, and feel brave enough to try again. I believe that we keep raising our children in healthy ways, when we make habits out of these actions:
- We convey a sense of acceptance and joy in who our child is, and give them opportunity to build emotional resilience by delighting in our child’s presence, playing with them on their terms, following their lead, and creating space for them to express all their feelings (while limiting hurtful actions).
- We convey there is room for positive change to happen, through efforts made by the child when we identify challenges as behaviorally-based rather than character-based. When we offer positive feedback for positive behaviors and keep it focused on behavior rather than character, we give a clear message that we approve of the behavior, without linking it to the goodness of the child. If we have already been spending time with our child, inviting their thoughts and opinions, even if they differ from ours, and open-heartedly giving affection just because, we have already conveyed that this virtue is there, and they are more able to weather our feedback for mistakes they inevitably make.
- We encourage them to problem-solve by inviting them into a discussion, asking open-ended questions of how they might go about resolving the problem (lunch left at home, spilled beverage, missed school bus, etc). Even if a challenge hasn’t occurred yet, simply brainstorming “what if” can help children feel more capable of identifying solutions, thereby developing their self-image as someone who can make positive change. Additionally, this encourages them to use those problem-solving skills in our absence as well.
- We allow our children to feel good about themselves when we accept a child’s sincere apology, but add that they must somehow make the receiver’s life easier by a specific act to make amends. This deters future occurrences more effectively than accepting a simple apology.
- Thanking, rather than praising a child for efforts made can allow for the child to see himself/ herself as having made a decision of his/her own accord that lead to a positive outcome. An outcome that is appreciated by others, and for which he/she can feel proud. For example, “Thanks for helping me clean up the living room, that really saved me some time,” gives a lot more useful information and positive feedback to the child than, “Good job, kiddo.”
- In respect to homework and other school projects, maintaining a healthy perspective is essential. Acknowledging that we may influence but we cannot force (without damaging the relationship) encourages and supports the child. The child does not hang their self-worth on the outcomes. For example, “I appreciate you working so hard on your reading. I think it really helps us get along better when I don’t have to nag you about it. Also, it helps your brain grow and you get to explore lots of different worlds and have lots of adventures without even leaving your bedroom! How cool is that??!” or, “I see that you studied hard for your test. I know that you didn’t get the results you were hoping for, and you’re feeling disappointed. What areas did you find most difficult? What might you do to get the information you need so that the next test results feel better to you?”
This may seem rather anxiety-inducing at first, however, keep in mind the ways in which these techniques help the relationship between you and your child. It decreases their resistance and defiance and it expands your influence– you’re seen by your child as being in his/her corner, rather than the obstacle to fight against.
“The greatest teacher, failure is…”
A: How do we impress upon our children how important and how big of a teacher failure is, and how important it is to take risks and fail regularly in order to gain eventual mastery?
V: As parents, we certainly know the benefits of failing and learning from our mistakes in order to gain eventual mastery. Especially when the alternative is to not try at all. How do we help our children appreciate the same?
Our first step is to help them be clear on the options. Is failure preferable to success, because we learn more in the process? No thank you! I don’t think any kiddo is buying that! But, is failing at something a few times, as a way to learn the skills needed to succeed more acceptable? Perhaps. It’s also inevitable, and that inevitability is what we can help our children learn to accept. Perhaps we can market the idea differently. The word failure carries a sense of doom and finality. Game over. Can we instead talk about learning, and add that magical word, “yet.” For example, “You haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I see you keep learning from all your attempts. How might I help? Did you know that every time this doesn’t work out, you learn what to do differently, which is very valuable progress!”
We can recount our own experiences of trying, not succeeding right away, making changes and continuing our efforts, with the eventual desired outcome being achieved, or perhaps even a better one through making a mistake. A happy accident, so to speak. In doing so, we make the process of learning less mysterious, and our child feels less alone in their lack of initial success.
We may also share stories with them of inventors, athletes, and other public figures who have overcome challenges and achieved desired outcomes. We can assist our children in making the connection between how hard one worked to achieve a goal and how sweet the ultimate attainment of success felt.
Finally, we can also talk to our children about their own past experiences, childhood is replete with them: learning to walk, talk, use the potty, eat with utensils, jump rope, ride a bike… When we direct our children’s attention to these things they now take for granted, we can help them see just how much experience they already have in eventual success. The end of a path steeped in learning and sprinkled with “not yet” is eventual success.
Slow Your Roll
A: At a societal level, I feel like we are programmed to reward tangible success regardless of how they were achieved, how do we re-train ourselves to not be so success focused. Or, more appropriately, how do we open up our definition of what success looks like for our children?
V: We do indeed live in a very results-driven, instant-gratification-oriented society. There is a perception that there is really little time to bother with process, yet this is where much of the magic occurs as far as effort and educational value for our children. I believe that when we are able to create space in our homes to slow down and practice over and over to keep ourselves from simply saying, “Good job,” then we can be present and mindful enough to invite conversation with our children. For example we might say, “Look at that blue sky in your picture, tell me more. What made you decide to use that color? How did you feel when you were drawing the picture? In your opinion, what was most important for me to notice in this picture?” When we as parents invite dialogue with our kids, we can give helpful, positive feedback that focuses on their efforts and the process of “doing.” With this, we add an alternative to the common narrative to which our children are exposed. The narrative that tells them over and over again that results are what matter.
Additionally, we can encourage our children to tap into their emotions about outcomes and results by using stories and books as well as their personal experience. We might say something like, “How might Joe have felt when he won the race? How hard did it seem for him to win? Who do you think felt better: Joe, who won the race like he usually does, or Jack, who usually comes in last but, because he’d been practicing, came in second?”
In this way, we are not denying the reality that society views results as important, but we’re giving a different perspective that holds effort as truly valuable. The effort made is, in and of itself, a reason to be proud. When our children make an effort, even if it falls short of the desired outcome, we can explore the feeling of having put forth that effort. We can invite our children to talk us through their thought process. We can ask them what they were hoping would be the outcome, and what might they try differently next time.
Just Notice, Don’t Judge
Exploring our own roles and our childhood triggers in relation to our children’s activities is a helpful step in understanding how we can be of greatest support. Typically, many activities in which a child engages have some kind of evaluative process, such as academics at school, learning to play a musical instrument, or participate in sports. These activities also usually have teachers, coaches, instructors…other adults whose specific role is to teach the activity. It is not our place as parents and we do not want to trod on the instructor’s role. When we blur these boundaries, we take our focus away from supporting and loving our kids through the inevitable ups and downs of mastering any activity or skill. We become evaluative ourselves, it leads to more outcome-based interactions, creating arguments and frustration for both the child and the parent.
Our role, instead, can more reasonable and healthy. Our goal should be to create the most supportive, resource-rich environment for success to occur, while at the same time focusing on the joy of the process. And yes, this can even ring true at school. Even school can inspire joy. When we let go of the evaluative pieces, trusting the teachers to do their roles, we create space to join our children in the joy of learning. We may remind them once about practice and homework, but we can follow up with enthusiasm about what is being learned or practiced. We can convey the kind of trust in our children that encourages them to invite us into the their process. We build this trust by watching them practice, attending their games, and discussing the topic of homework. We can motivate them by asking, “How different does it feel when you play the song you’ve been working on, now, compared to when you were just getting started?” or, “What fascinates you about this (topic)?” or, “What changes do you think would make this invention even better?”
In this way, our children benefit from our trust in them doing their best (which, of course, makes them want to do their best). By our channeling of positive energy towards their efforts and experience, we allow them to get the most out of whatever they choose to do. It also strengthens the parent/child relationship in the process.
I imagine some parents might respond with to all of this advice with, “What if my child is struggling in school? Am I supposed to just stand by and let her fail?” The answer is no. Please know that I am not advocating idly standing by in any way. When our children feel pressure from us, they rarely open up about the true nature of their concerns and worries, and the things that they believe are blocking their success go unexplored for too long. They become defensive and unwilling to engage our help or benefit from help in order to solve their problems. We can begin in a more supportive space, by asking if they would like our help and creating connection, away from the homework table. This is more likely to lead our children to invite us into their experience, and open up to us, clear in the knowledge that we are there to help with process and efforts, and the outcomes will take care of themselves.
A: How do we help our children place value on aspects of life that aren’t given much emphasis in media, like kindness and empathy? The world could use a very compassionate and community-minded next few generations…
V: Kindness and empathy, compassion and helping, are all qualities that are needed more than ever, yet hold little value in our society in so far as they are not habitually lauded or rewarded. At least not in the same way individual success, wealth and measurable achievements are. Yet without the virtues of kindness and compassion, our world is cold, harsh and lonely. When we observe aloud, our children showing small acts of kindness, they feel seen, appreciated, and much more likely to repeat those behaviors.
We can help our children tune into how it feels to help another, and how they feel when someone has helped them. We can thank our children when they act in this way towards us and their siblings, by stating how this act specifically helped us. This conveys to them the value of their actions. Using books and movies to ask children how a character may feel in different circumstances helps them see the experience through another’s eyes, the very basis of empathy and developing compassion. It is about cultivating a perspective outside of oneself.
When a child acts in a hurtful way, asking them quietly how they think their actions made the other feel. When they reflect back on their actions, it gives them a moment to pause and understand the impact of what they have done. Following up with an act of service as well as an apology can return children to their good feelings about themselves once again. This is the ultimate goal, having your child reach adulthood with their self-esteem in tact!
*Dr. Leon Seltzer’s article, in full, here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201401/praise-manipulation-6-reasons-question-compliments
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Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwester of Indian descent who aspires to be a peaceful parent to her two amazing young boys. Vinay is a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade, and a lover of hiking and tea!