Tag Archives: cooperation

The Power of Praise- John Cowan investigates

29 May

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Confused by whether or not praise is good for your children?

Psychologists fight, but it is a very dull sport to watch. They fire volleys of academic papers at each other before slinking back to their universities and clinics. The dull bit is that you cannot tell who has won. One current raging battle is about praising children.

Some say praise is great and some say it is just manipulation that turns kids into spineless ‘pleasers’. I’ve wandered through the smoke and noise of the battle field (i.e. I have done some pretty intense Googling) to find out what the two camps are on about. Both sides have got their heavy duty PhDs and their research and they both sound very plausible, so how could anyone choose who is right? Well, I can. Of course, I could be wrong, but I am assuming you probably won’t be able to prove it!

I had always thought that praise was great. “Praise is the fastest route to change” is a quote I saw years ago, not in a parenting book but in a management manual. It went on to say that praise works faster than nagging, threats and bribes in changing behaviour to the desired outcome. I took that advice to heart and it has been one of my staple beliefs about how to raise children. I’ve used it at home with my own kids and taught it in courses and seminars. I always found it creates a very agreeable atmosphere in the home as well as ‘doing the trick’ of shaping their behaviour.

One of the things I especially liked about praise as a parenting tool is that it encourages us to seek out and focus on children’s positive behaviour rather than just discovering their misbehaviour and criticising it. I suspect parents possess an innate super-sense to spot mischief, even through solid walls. (Surely some psychologist could get a grant to research this). Most parents seem to be able to stare at a closed bedroom door and tell, just by the mere silence emanating from it, that their children must be up to something on the other side! With a little effort, that same ability can be tweaked to spot their good behaviour and not just their bad.

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When you focus on the positive it is amazing how much you actually like your children more: even if it did not budge behaviour one iota, it at least feels like you have got nicer kids.  But it does change behaviour – even the critics of praise concede that – and that is actually one of the key objections critics have of praise: it is controlling. “Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone’s behaviour, typically someone with less power”, writes education expert, Alfie Kohn. “More to the point, it’s likely to be experienced as controlling regardless of the praiser’s intention. Praise is a pat on the head, ‘pat’ being short for ‘patronizing’”, he says in an article called Five Reasons to Storp Saying “Good Job”1Professor Rheta DeVries of the University of Northern Iowa calls it ‘sugar-coated control’: basically it is behaviourism, an attempt to manipulate people like lab-rats with rewards and punishments. It assumes that all the behaviour is due to the reward; it ignores the feelings and values and other motives that might be involved.

In two books, ‘Punished by Rewards’ and ‘Unconditional Parenting’, Kohn unpacks some of his other objections. He thinks it creates “praise junkies who are constantly looking for approval and who depend on other people for their self esteem. It makes them afraid of losing that constant stream of feedback.

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Research by Mary Budd Rowe in Florida found that when students were highly praised by their teachers they were a lot less confident about giving answers in class, less likely to share ideas, backed down quickly if challenged by an adult and gave up on difficult tasks – it seemed that whenever there was a chance that they might jeopardise getting a “well done!” from the teacher, they weren’t prepared to take that risk. Like a drug, they get used to a regular high dose of praise; when praise is withheld it really feels like a punishment. I recall Dr Sylvia Rimm, when she visited New Zealand many years ago, talking about why bright kids often fail in higher education. Throughout their early school years they received high levels of praise – they got honoured as ‘top-of-the-class’ and their work was held up in front of others. But as they move up into high school and university, they get streamed in amongst other bright kids. They are no longer the top of the pile; they are just one of many similarly-smart students. They may still be getting a reasonable amount of good feedback, but nothing like the rate of praise they received when they were the star of their primary classroom, the big fish in the little school pond. The drop feels awful, and many kids give up making the effort that keeps them achieving.

What about kids who are not such high achievers? They simply dislike the idea of being judged. “The most notable feature of a positive judgment isn’t that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment. And people, including kids, don’t like being judged,” says Kohn.

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Praise might even take the pleasure and interest out of doing things. If you practice the piano, there is an ‘intrinsic’ reward: music! You can actually play the piano! But what if you practice the piano to get stickers on a reward chart or some other award or treat? Those are ‘extrinsic’ rewards. “What happens when you get older and don’t get stars?” asks Paul Raeburn in Psychology Today. “Do you lose interest in practising when you’ve lost extrinsic rewards that you’ve become accustomed to? The research suggests that you do.” He continues, “We praise drawings or spelling papers because we want our kids to continue to work hard and to do good work … But what we really want to teach our children is that they should do good work because of the satisfaction it provides, not to earn praise from parents or teachers. I’ve often wondered why so few Americans read books—serious novels and nonfiction. Could it be because  we were so conditioned to getting A’s for reading Melvile or Hawthorne that there is no joy left in reading them for the pleasure and enlightenment they provide? I can’t cite research to answer that question, but I think it’s a good guess.”

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What if that also applies to moral behaviour? What happens if kids learn to be kind and generous and caring simply because it attracts the positive attention of adults? Does the good behaviour stop when the rewards do? Alarmingly, yes! Or so some research seems to suggest. Joan Grusec in Toronto noted that children who were praised for generosity became less generous in the playground (when they weren’t being praised by the teacher) than kids who were not. Generosity became a means of getting praise from adults and not just something that felt good to do.

So, have Kohn and crew convinced me to shelve praise as a parenting tool? No … but their evidence does suggest ways in which we modify our use of praise.

First of all, I do believe that it is right for parents to shape children’s behaviour. It’s not manipulation, it’s parenting. We have the benefit of decades of experience, we have learnt that things like manners, respect, generosity and cooperation actually work very well. It is not a matter of wanting to control or impose our wills on children, it is the firm belief that the most loving thing to do for children is to help them learn to behave ‘well’: it is the the best thing for them and society.

Secondly, I do take very seriously Kohn’s points about intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards, but I think that a praise and reward system can still have a place. External rewards, like praise and star charts, are great ways to start behaviour moving in a new direction, but it is not ideal for maintaining it. The trick is to help the child  realise the real value or pleasure of what they are doing. You might start off by praising them for cleaning their bedroom, but you move on to saying things like, “It must be really nice having a room that is so tidy and you can find everything”; “I feel good every time I go in your room – I bet you do too, it’s so nice and tidy.” You are moving from an external reward to an internal reward, teaching them to reward themselves. You move from, “Good on you for doing your homework” to “Once you get the hang of it, isn’t science fascinating!” – you are connecting them to the intrinsic reward of knowledge rather than simply getting approval for work done.

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We should also beware of empty praise and excessive praise. Children soon pick up on the fact that this is meaningless and manipulative. When Farmer Hoggett says, “That’ll do, pig” at the end of the movie Babe, it is powerful not because it is part of a torrent of praise but for the very opposite. Those few words from a taciturn man  poke volumes, and the pig (and audience) melted.

And finally, there is a huge difference between ‘person’ praise and ‘process’ praise. A team led by Elizabeth Gundersen at The University of Chicago have been doing a long term project. They filmed parents interacting with their children, in their own homes. They did it when the children were one, then two and again at three. Five years later, they tested the now eight-year-old children, measuring all sorts of behaviours. How those children were praised, when they were little, seemed to have a big effect. Some parents praised their kids with things like “You’re a clever kid”, “You’re tall”, “You’re pretty”: this is called ‘person praise’: compliments for who and what they were: their intelligence, skill, looks, height – things they have no control over. Other kids were praised for their effort and their actions – that’s called ‘process praise’ – and those kids at eight enjoyed challenging tasks, they could overcome setbacks and believed that hard work can improve intelligence and personality.

Person praise locks kids into thinking you are what you are – if they don’t do well, they think that’s just the way I am, but process praise gives kids the exciting belief that they can change and get better. “These findings suggest that improving the quality of early parental praise may help children develop the belief that their future success is in their own hands,” said Gunderson.

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So, go ahead and be generous with praise – just be sure it is not empty, manipulative and taking away a child’s real motivation. Praise them for their efforts and actions, rather than their looks and intelligence. Some may worry our children will depend too much on our approval, but I doubt there are few things nicer to have in the back of our heads than the idea that our Mum and Dad are proud of us.

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how to talk so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk – by John Cowan

29 Nov

from Parenting Magazine www.theparentingplace.com

It’s one thing to talk to your children – it’s another to have a receptive audience. John Cowan gets some tips from the experts on being heard and learning to listen.

There are heaps of parenting books. Most have got some good ideas, but there are very few that you enjoy coming back to. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish wrote such a book: “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen…And Listen So Kids Will Talk.”  I recently reread it, and was amazed at how much of what I had read a decade ago had ‘stuck’. So I realised much of what I believe and teach about parenting came from this book – some of the ideas are so ingrained I honestly thought I had made them up myself!

So here are a few tips on communication. I know they originally came from Faber and Mazlish, but I should warn you that these ideas are coloured and distorted from having spent 10 years fermenting in my brain.

Helping children deal with their feelings

A key concept of the book is based on Dr William Sear’s idea: “A child who feels right, acts right!” Behaviour is a symptom of something going on inside. All kids will occasionally throw up the odd bit of mischief, but if you are enduring persistent, unpleasant, uncooperative behaviour, that child is not feeling well. A child who feels ‘right’ doesn’t need to resort to whiney, aggressive ‘racket behaviour or passive-aggressive sabotage to get their needs met. So how do we help them feel right? One way is to accept their feelings, rather than trying to convince them that they are NOT feeling what they know very well that they ARE feeling.

“You can’t be tired!”

“It’s cold! Keep it on.”

“That didn’t hurt.”

“I’m not interested in your excuses.”

“You don’t look sick to me.”

The overall message we give is, ‘don’t trust your own perceptions – trust mine’. It leads to frustration and arguments. It certainly doesn’t make a child feel loved and accepted. A better response is empathy: feeling what they are feeling. And this is where Faber and Mazlish are brilliant: they don’t just tell you do something (“Be empathetic!”) , they walk you through the process, and use little cartoon examples to show right and wrong was to tackle the issues they raise. So they unpack empathy into three steps: Listen closely, acknowledge their feelings and give their feeling a name. Now, let’s unpack that unpacking:

Listening. We automatically hear the noises our children make but actually listen in a way that is really empathetic takes effort and skill.

 First, actually show that you are listening: lean in, make eye contact and have an appropriate expression. Remove distractions – your kids will never believe you are taking them seriously if you are clicking through channels or scanning a magazine (even a parenting magazine!) while they are talking to you. If they want to talk at an inconvenient time, rather than just saying, “Not now”, make an actual appointment: “I can’t stop at the moment, but I want to hear what you’ve got to say. I’ll come inside after the Fire Brigade have finished and you can tell me then.”

The real heart of empathy is acknowledging their feelings. Language is sometimes inadequate: sympathetic Oooohs and Mmmms are often far more eloquent ways to express that we feel what they’re feeling. Sometimes you might not need any words or sounds at all: closeness and empathy may be enough.

Our body language should say the same thing our words do: if we stand rigid and aloof, it sends a message that we don’t really care. It’s not that complicated, really! Feel the feeling and the body will follow.

Then, give the feeling a name :

“That sounds frustrating.”

“You must have been embarrassed”.

“How confusing.”

Repeat back to them what you understand them to be saying, but don’t be a parrot. Reflect the feelings, but don’t amplify them: “You must be really really REALLY mad!!!”

The aim is to let them know that you hear them, you empathise with their feelings, but you don’t necessarily have to agree with their perceptions of how things are. For example, you can sympathise with their feeling that things are unfair at home, but you don’t need to agree that things are actually unfair. And you don’t have to agree with their negative self labels (“So you’re really fat and ugly.”)

Of course, it is not just our children who have emotions – we have them as well, and sometimes our feelings will be upset when we hear our children express their emotions. What if they say they don’t like their Grandmother, or they hate their bike or they feel the teachers humiliate them? The instinctive reaction is to try to minimise or contradict or criticise their emotion. Wind back your own emotional response: all feelings can be accepted… but not all actions are permitted. They can be upset or angry – that’s permitted – but they cannot hit or damage things or use behaviour that is not permitted.

The book also gives techniques for getting cooperation. I particularly like the way that these methods train children to think and act without needing to be told. These may work in isolation, or you may use several of them in combination.

Describe the issue. Say what you see . It is so much better when they learn to see problems that need to be solved rather than just wait for commands to obey.

“The water is getting to the top of the bath.”

“I see the dog is waiting by the door.”

“There are dirty plates on the table.”

Give information. These might be the rules of your family or just facts about food, hygiene, safety etc. Again, it is encouraging children to think and motivate themselves to action rather just always waiting for orders.

“Apple cores go in the bin.”

“Milk goes sour when it’s left out.”

“Hands are for helping not hitting.”

“It would be helpful to put the plates on the table.”

Say it with a word. Some of us make the mistake of thinking that nagging really works; what it really does is train a child not to act until they have been asked multiple times. Use fewer words with more effectiveness.

“Pyjamas.”

“Your lunch.”

“The dog.”

Personally, I reckon your real goal should be to have the ability to give instructions by ‘eye-brow semaphore’: a flick of the eyes towards what needs to be done combined with an authoritative twitch of the eyebrow!

Talk about your feelings. It’s great when we learn about empathy, but our children need to be trained in it too. They especially need to know that their actions impact your feelings.

“I don’t like to be shoved.”

“Ants bother me.”

“I get frustrated when you talk over me.”

“I object to being spoken to roughly”

Write a note. For those of us who are addicted to nagging, maybe writing notes will help wean us off the habit. A Post It note stuck to their mirror will nag all day for you. In our home, we often use texts, even room to room. Children and teens seem to be unable to ignore texts, whereas they can tune out a parents voice very easily.

“Homework done?”

“Ssh… we’re having a snooze.”

“These need to be put away.”

“Chores.”

“How to Talk So Kids will Listen” is not a magic wand, but it is one of the few tools parents can get that comes close to it!

 

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