As a middle child I grew up constantly yearning for validation and praises from my parents, in part because their attention was always divided between me and my two brothers. When I became a parent, I vowed to be attentive to Gwen, so that she would never feel devoid of (or even lacking in) my attention in any way. I wanted her to know I take pride in what she does, her learning and her play.
As a result, I fell into the pitfall of saying “good job!” indiscriminately, be it for her first milestones or even the most ordinary everyday task.
The Turning Point
One day, I picked up The Montessori Toddler book by Simone Davies, which my friend A introduced to me. It stopped me in my tracks. It got me to reflect on the purpose of praise, my purpose for praising my daughter, the circumstances under which I shower praises and how I word my praises.
Changing My Praising Habits
From then on, I knew I wanted to stop my vague “good job!” and instead acknowledge Gwen’s efforts and/or provide feedback whenever she looks up from her play to find out what I think and seek a connection.
In our interactions, I also started to avoid using words that describe inborn talent like “smart” or “intelligent” when Gwen succeeds at completing advanced tasks and instead replaced them with words that describe soft skills e.g. “determination” and “creativity”.
Finally I held my silence more whenever I found Gwen absorbed in a task. I used to give her suggestions, drop hints etc to help her complete tasks better or problem-solve effectively. Now I stop myself from doing all that. She doesn’t need me hovering over her with judgments of how she’s doing and interrupting her train of thought!
Reasons for Acknowledgement & Feedback In Place of Praise
I knew the praise had to stop, and I had to transform them into acknowledgement of efforts and/or feedback. Doing so would have long-term benefits on Gwen’s learning, self-perception and value system.
Theses are the key reasons for my change of heart:
- I don’t want to undermine intrinsic motivation in my child by (over)praising.
I want Gwen to do things for the pure satisfaction and happiness of getting a job done, rather than for external approval and praise from others. I want her to strive for doing her best as she grows up, even in situations when few will see the behind-the-scenes labor.
My worry is that constant praising will raise a praise junkie who needs extrinsic motivation to get things done. I hope to focus on developing Gwen’s intrinsic motivation from an early age.
- I want Gwen to have a growth mindset vs a fixed mindset, the latter being a likely consequence of (over)praising.
“Growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” are terms coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, to describe the differences between how children and adults perceive success and failure as well as react to new challenges.
Acknowledging the efforts and actions of our children encourages a growth mindset and the child develops a passion for continually try out new things and seeking out new challenges. They tend not to be discouraged by failure, because they don’t actually see themselves as “failing” in those circumstances — they view it as trial and error learning.
Praising our children for jobs well done may lead to a fixed mindset whereby a sense of urgency in proving themselves over and over again develops to gain external validation of their intelligence or ability. Individuals with fixed mindset tend to avoid new challenges for fear of failing and being seen as “not good enough” or losing their sense of being “smart”.
Children with a growth mindset tend to grow up into individuals who are more enterprising, self-motivated and confident in life.
The tricky thing here is to avoid falling into the “false” growth mindset by simply acknowledging effort for any attempt, successful or failed, without evaluating if the effort led to real learning.
- I want Gwen to value the process of doing things via feedback.
When acknowledged for their efforts, children are led to believe that the journey of “getting there” is as important as the end outcome of reaching the destination. They will derive more joy and meaning from the process, even slowing down to refine or do things better, rather than urgently get to the result.
When you pay attention to what children do in the process of play and give feedback (e.g. to children casually scribbling, “I see you’re drawing a few blue strokes, what could they be?”), it may make them look closer at the details and even derive more meaning from what they are working on (“Those are waves!”)
An occasional “awesome!” doesn’t hurt of course (and chances are you can’t help your excitement), just be sure to try the pointers below to enhance learning!
How To Give Feedback Instead of Praise
These tips are highly effective and they are from The Montessori Toddler by Simone Davies, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish and Three Minute Montessori.
- Describe our children’s actions
Keep it factual, specific and use positive language. The bonus is that this helps our children pick up new vocabulary and find words for their own actions.
“You put on your sock by yourself!”
“You placed your book back onto the book shelf.”
“You drew with yellow and orange markers. You made an orange circle.”
- Describe how we feel about our children’s actions
This comes naturally (as opposed to point number one which can make one feel like a commentator.)
“I’m so happy you drank from the cup!”
“I love that you can put your dirty clothes into the laundry basket.”
“I’m proud that you balanced three blocks on top of one another.”
- Say Thank You!
When you run out of things to say, sum it up with a “thank you!” that exudes courtesy and gratitude.
This is perfect for circumstances when our children do something you are pleased with and proud of, like throwing litter into the bin, washing hands after using the bathroom and picking up fallen crumbs after a meal.
I’ll leave you with a quotes from Maria Montessori that resonated with me.
“Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity. It seems a strange thing to say, but this can happen even if the child merely becomes aware of being watched. After all, we too sometimes feel unable to go on working if someone comes to see what we are doing. The great principle which brings success to the teacher is this: as soon as concentration has begun, act as if the child does not exist. Naturally, one can see what he is doing with a quick glance, but without his being aware of it.” (Dr. Maria Montessori, ‘The Absorbent Mind’, Clio Press, 255)
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