I have a secret for you. Humans suck at parenting. That’s right, I said it. We aren’t born parents, so it’s not an innate skill set. The day we become parents we don’t suddenly know everything about parenting. That would be like trying to sit on a bike one day and suddenly know exactly how to ride it. Wouldn’t that be nice? Your baby is born and then *boop* you’re brain just downloaded all it needs to know to raise, nurture, love, and mold this increasingly complex little human. Nope! Most people think that they will just know what to do. But that’s not the case. It is our instinct to parent in response to how we were parented: if you like what you experienced, then you repeat it. If you don’t, you try to change it. The problem is that most people don’t know what to change it to, so they end up either accidentally doing the same thing their parents did, then feeling guilty and ashamed, or doing nothing- no boundaries, no rules, nothing. But don’t worry folks, I have good news, parenting is a skill! That means it can be learned. And just like riding a bike, once you learn it, it’s easy to pick up again if you get off track.
One of the easiest skills to implement immediately in your parenting practices is using encouragement. But first, let’s talk about what encouragement is and what it isn’t. Many parents get praise and encouragement confused because they look and sound similar. However, encouragement is not the same thing as praise. Both focus on positive behaviors, but encouragement focuses on the effort and praise focuses on the outcome. Gary Landreth stated that praise fosters dependence in children because it focuses on an external source of control and motivation whereas encouragement fosters independence because it highlights internal evaluation, self-control, and confidence. For example: when a child comes to you with his or her painting and says, “Look! Look at what I made!” a common response is “Wow! I love it!” This would be an example of praise. This comment sends the message that the child has done something good and now is rewarded by the parents’ recognition and positive evaluation. The risk is that if the child does something bad, then the parent would not give recognition and would give a negative evaluation. Therefore, the child’s self-esteem is directly linked to how other people evaluate him or her.
Encouragement offers the opposite. Encouragement facilitates self-control, confidence, an internal sense of motivation, the ability to accept and learn from mistakes, and feeling useful for their contributions. The trick is to eliminate value-laden words like “good” or “great” or “excellent”. The more you focus on the effort the more the child learns grit. Melinda Moyer, author of “How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes” explains that a child who has been encouraged is more likely to be resilient during challenging tasks. Fear of failure is not as big of a deal for these kids because they have been taught that it's more important to try rather than be perfect or achieve the “A.”
So, now you might be asking, “How can I incorporate encouragement?” Well, I am glad you asked. The easiest way to incorporate encouragement is to think of your most-used praise phrase. Do you have it? Great! (Is it “good job” – Yeah, I thought it might be!) Now, throw it out the window and replace it with “You worked hard on that!” The key is to say this the same way you would say “good job” with excitement and pride in your voice. Here are some other phrases that fit too.
Encouraging phrases that recognize effort:
· You did it
· You got it
· You worked hard at that
· You didn’t give up
· Look at the progress you’ve made
· You’ve finished half your worksheet and it’s only 4 pm
Encouraging phrases that show confidence
· I have confidence in you, you’ll figure it out
· That’s a rough one but I bet you'll figure it out
· Sounds like you have a plan
· Sounds like you know a lot about…?
Encouraging phrases that focus on contributions and appreciation
· Thanks, that was a big help!
· It was thoughtful of you to…
· I appreciate that you…
· You have a knack for… Can you give me a hand at that?
Pick one or two and stick them in your back pocket. Over the next few days, look for opportunities to use them. As you get used to using them, creating a new habit, add more phrases to your parenting tool belt. Now, keep in mind that you can still use praise! Good times to use praise are when your child is getting used to encouragement. You might double up on it and say something like, “Good job! You worked hard on that!” As your kiddo becomes more confident and focuses their attention more on their own effort, you can pull back on praise. Remember, praise is like candy, a little is yummy, but too much will hurt the tummy!
Adapted from Bratton, S., Landreth, G., Kellam, T., & Blackard, S.R. Child Parent Relationship Therapy treatment Manual: a 10 session filial therapy model for parents. (2006). New York: Routledge.