Tag Archives: respect

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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7 Steps To A Happier Family – by Andrea Stringer

6 Mar

from Parenting Magazine http://www.theparentingplace.com/

To me, the phrase Happy Families brings to mind a cheesy board game, matching sweaters and cups of hot chocolate. Too-cute kids gaze adoringly at their wise and capable parents who deal with everything calmly and most certainly never raise their voices. If you suspect this is what I want to help you achieve, please let me reassure you! What I want to write about is families like my own, and the ones that I coach. Families with flaws, quirks, and issues – in other words, inhabitants of the real world. When parents come to see a Family Coach, one of the most common goals they voice is for everyone to be happier. But it’s incredible how difficult such a simple sounding goal can be to achieve. When things are going right, however, I think the following seven elements are usually in place.

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A hierarchy of power, with the parents at the top, sometimes seems like a terribly old-fashioned idea. But, in a happy family everyone knows exactly where they stand and they’re comfortable with it. These days most people prefer that the children have some say over family matters, are listened to, and their feelings are truly heard. I couldn’t agree more. The problem with this philosophy is that parents sometimes lose their footing as they scramble to make sure the kids are getting the respect they deserve.

Parents have got to be willing to wear their authority, a kind but a firm authority, from time to time. When we get too focussed on the goal of short-term happiness (eg. giving in, backing down or withholding reasonable discipline), then the issue of who is really in charge will be repeatedly tested – even more so if you have one or more determined or argumentative child in your brood.

The great thing about everyone knowing their place is that we can relax. We don’t need to apologise for taking charge, we don’t need the continual wrestle for control that can seriously compromise a family’s happiness.

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A common argument in the debate around teasing and bullying is that we don’t want our children to grow up thinking everyone has to be nice to them, all the time. Of course we don’t want our kids to be so defenceless that they crumble at the first insult. This might be why a fair amount of name-calling and unkind behaviour is allowed to go on in families, mostly between siblings but also between parents and children. Parents could be forgiven for thinking that family is a safe place for a bit of ribbing and learning to cope with jibes. I think that up to a certain point this is true. Recent research conducted in New Zealand however, indicates that the teasing that hurts the most comes from the ones we’re closest to, our family.

Families who are unhappy have often let this one slip away on them without even realising. Often in the face of bigger interpersonal issues, words such as stupid or idiot can fly under the radar. You don’t like hearing it, but you let it go because it’s the least of your worries. But how we talk to one another, is one of the biggest determinants of a close and loving family feeling, and it is so worth the effort to make your family a put-down free zone. It takes vigilance and consistency. Sometimes it will feel as though you’re making a big deal about something that might not matter much, but creating a family environment where people feel safe from emotional harm really does matter.

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When everyone is too busy, or too focussed on simply getting through the day, it seems that one of the first things we drop is the family sense of humour. It’s such a shame that we tend to treat fun, laughter, and adventure as luxuries which we’d get around to if only we could. The truth is that all of these things keep body, soul and spirit healthy, bring family members closer together and help them feel better about each other, themselves, and life in general.

If you haven’t had a good laugh together lately, ask yourself why, and what you can do about it. There might be a game or movie that always sees everyone dissolve into fits of giggles. If there is, then do it regularly! The irony of course is that you need this stuff most when you feel like it least. But trust me, when the kids are getting up your nose and they’re the last people in the world you feel like spending time with – do something fun together. Go somewhere you’ve never been, even in your own neighbourhood. Try hard to see and point out the humour in the silly, mundane, or annoying parts of life. This won’t always be the easy option, of course, it’s usually much easier to stay serious and grumpy. That’s why you have to decide to make an investment in the happiness bank of your family.

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steps to a happier family-10People in happy families, as a general rule, know the importance of flexibility. It’s really heartbreaking to meet with parents who might be absolutely desperate to have things at home be different, and yet they can’t or won’t admit they could look at the problem from another angle or adjust their own behaviour.

There is hope for the control freaks among us, if only we can get comfortable with the fact that we won’t always have the right answer first time. We also have to be willing to adjust an expectation we had of our child, partner, or ourselves. It’s amazing how far our disappointment can take us when we feel a family member is not behaving or coping at the level we expect them to. In the face of repeated evidence to the contrary, we’ll complain to anyone who’ll listen “He KNOWS how to do this!”, or “She KNEW better than to behave like that!”. A flexible thinker stops and reassesses, and also gives the people they love the benefit of the doubt. “If you knew how, you’d be doing it already, so how can I help you learn this?”.

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I think all families probably struggle to connect at times due to the pressures of time, work, and activity overload. On top of that, as children get older their personalities will take them in very different directions. They might prefer different kinds of jokes, books, movies, or one will play every sport going while the other might want to draw all day. If we’re constantly in different spheres, perhaps with Mum and Dad tag-teaming to make sure everyone gets where they need to go, then where is the sense of family?

Happy families build in an atmosphere of mutual support for everyone by making a deliberate choice to be actively interested in each other. Saturday morning soccer might bore you rigid but you need to be there at least some of the time. And if you can’t be there, ask questions afterwards that show your child a curiosity for their world. Your little introvert might seem so happy in the corner immersed in their books, but if you went over and asked what they were reading, and which character was their favourite, and if you could borrow it to have a read yourself, they’ll be (quietly) over the moon. At the very least, family meal times can be used to reconnect, ask questions, and catch up on everything you’ve missed.

By taking an interest in your child’s world, you teach them to take an interest in yours, building a sense of mutual care and concern that keeps both kids and parents happy.

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In a happy family people are allowed to make mistakes. I think this is one that is easy to get right on paper. We say all the right things, but what is the emotional atmosphere like when someone gets it wrong? Body language and facial expression will say so much more than the words. There is a fine balance to be struck between having high expectations and encouraging children to do their best, and a level of perfectionism that attracts shame and guilt when expected standards aren’t met. The most powerful way to send a healthy message is in how we treat ourselves and our partners when we stuff up. Is forgiveness and acceptance of human error regularly practised?

It seems to me that children will often struggle to move forward and change their behaviour while they feel their parents’ disappointment laying heavy over them. It’s not just children who need to know they’re ‘OK’ before they can begin to act differently, we all feel safer, happier, and more secure when we know that we’re accepted just as we are, warts and all.

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Have you ever heard the suggestion that we should basically live in bikinis because we will never be as young or in such good shape as we are RIGHT NOW? Well, I’m not sure about that, but if you haven’t looked through some family photo albums recently, do it soon, because there’s no better reminder that your children will never be as young again as they are RIGHT NOW. We toil so hard to work, clean, improve our homes, and prepare for the future – that magical time when everything will finally be as we’ve been planning for it to be. We’ll have the free time to see people, do things, and have all that elusive fun we’ve been preparing for.

If we don’t fully appreciate that we are actually IN what are potentially the best moments of our lives, right now, then we will always be one step behind the full happiness that family life has to offer. Some people call it living in the moment. I don’t recommend doing it constantly or you’d wander from room to room experiencing everything so intensely that you’d never get out of your pyjamas. But do make sure that every day you stop at least once and abandon yourself to the enjoyment of dancing, playing a game, even having a simple conversation with your children, and with your partner. Because of course, these are the moments that create your family’s happiness, but if we don’t notice it happening, then we miss it.

Maybe one or more of these steps has reminded you of something you’d like to work on. I hope so because going over them has made me want to work harder at all seven! Do remember we’re real people, though. No family (that I’ve met anyway) is happy all of the time, and they shouldn’t worry if they’re not. We do the best we can. And that’s often good enough for a happy family.

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