A cornerstone, and often overlooked, part of parenting is the simple (but not easy) task of encouragement. I can never remind parents enough to encourage their kids and encourage themselves. Often we spend so much time trying to get them to stop doing things that we forget all about the art of noticing and appreciating all that our kids (and WE) do well.
What Encouragement is NOT
We often mistake encouragement for praise. Go and listen next weekend to any soccer field and track how long it takes to rack up 10, or 15, or even 20 “Good Jobs” being shouted across the field. What is the good job? What did that kid do? Do they know? Frankly, I think we should be saying, “Good Job, all you parents getting up and out of the house and knowing where your kid’s shin guards are and for combing your hair and for showing up and for finding a parking spot.” Then I’d raise my Grande Latte to all the devoted moms and dads on the dewy field. But, back to the task at hand, “Good Job” is praise. “Good Girl” is praise. Praise is not encouragement. Praise is often the throwaway thing we say to our kids in hopes of getting good behavior and obedience. Praise is a little bit like sugary sweets. Praise is yummy, but not for everyday consumption and best if enjoyed sparingly.
OK, OK Smarty Pants . . . what IS encouragement?
Encouragement is very specific, low key, and most successful if given one-on-one. (Anyone with more than one child has entered the corn maze of complimenting one and then hearing quickly from the other one, “Hey, what about me, I did that too!”) So, back to soccer. Your child is out there kicking (or not), dodging (or not), scoring goals (or not). You are out there chatting it up on the sidelines and watching, and just one Saturday, don’t shout a thing. Assume the coach has it under control. You are just there to encourage. Your role is attentive parent, not overly attentive (they are not playing in the Olympics . . . yet). You notice a couple of things they do well or that they improved upon, and, a few hours after the game, when it’s just you and Suzy, you say, “Suzy, I saw how you were close to the goal, and you passed to Peter. That looked like real teamwork.” Then Suzy either opens up and tells you all about it, or she looks at you quizzically and has no idea how to respond. Either way, your job is done. Encouragement shows our kids we are watching, we are noticing improvement, and we have faith in them.
Encouragement is handy, even when things go awry!
Encouragement is so handy that it can be used when things go terribly, awfully wrong. Suzy kicks a goal into the other team’s net! Oh boy, she’s in tears, so embarrassed. You can give encouragement here, too. Listening is encouragement. Just letting Suzy pour out all her feelings. You don’t have to say anything, just be a big ol’ lap for her to sit in. When she’s calm, you can notice that after she was done being upset, she got up and went back into the game. Reflect to her that going back in takes real courage.
Encouragement Cheat Sheet
- Low key: Tone of voice is calm and low and not high-pitched and over-eager
- Noticing specifics: “I notice that blue you chose in your drawing is turquoise. Why did you choose that instead of cornflower?”
- Most effective when given in private: I know, if you have more than one kid it’s harder, but just give it a try.
- Non-verbal: Open arms, a willing ear, a big smile – all are easy and warm ways to encourage.
- Questions: If your child is very excited and happy or very sad and blue, ask her questions using tentative language. “I wonder if you were embarrassed when you got that goal for the other team?”
- Noticing improvement: “Your backpack is looking very tidy. I noticed you cleaned it out this week. How did it feel?” (Most effective if you stick to the backpack topic and do not mention that her room is a huge mess and how can she stand living like a pig.) Encouragement is not about gaining more compliance.
Try it on yourself
Finally, the hardest task of all, try to encourage yourself. I’m not talking Stuart Smalley, “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” I mean noticing that you keep showing up to parent; you are working on adding new things (other than yelling) to help your family cooperate. Pay attention to how much more successful you are in dealing with a toddler’s tantrums or a teen’s sass without taking it personally. Encouragement is a useful, handy, and meaningful tool to practice with kids of all ages!
The concept of encouragement is woven throughout all of PEP’s programs; it’s a fundamental tenet of our parenting philosophy. But for many of us, the language and style of parenting described above aren’t intuitive. That’s why we’ve created our online Master Classes, Encouragement! Building Your Childs Confidence From the Inside Out and Redefining Discipline: A No Gimmicks Guide to Raising Responsible, Respectful Kids.
This article originally appeared on the Nifty Tips blog at Balancing Act, LLC and is reprinted with permission.