The Price of Praise Part 2: Expressing Appreciation
Q: I understand your guidance not to praise my child’s achievements and to validate his expressed self-appreciation instead. However, can I praise him when he helps me, and, can I give positive feedback when he practices his music?
A: We want to let a child know that we appreciate his help, and we wish to give useful feedback when asked for it. Praise is an evaluation and so it misses these intentions; anytime we give our opinion or judgment (no matter how great) on the behavior or accomplishment of another, we appear as though we are one up, which is the reason it is perceived as patronizing. Such praise is likely to elicit annoyance, shoulder shrug, or rolled eyes – because it does not meet the need of the child for respect and equality. If such praise is accepted, it can lead to dependency and insecurity as explained in part one of the three-article series.
When your child serves your needs…
A mother told me about her twelve-year-old son who one day, on his own, mowed the lawn. She praised him, “Oh, how wonderful, you are becoming helpful and it looks so nice.” Three months later she reported that he hasn’t helped ever since, even though they have done a lot of yard work. After the session with me, she connected with her son and said, “You haven’t participated in our yard work since you mowed the loan. Are you feeling thwarted because you wish to help out of your own free will?” “I don’t want to get grades for my work,” he responded. When you praise me I know that you are trying to make me do it again, that just kills it for me.”
When a child serves your needs she does not want evaluation; she wishes to know that it served you, and would enjoy knowing how you feel about it. The relevant response to the service is gratitude. Saying “Thank you” may be enough for minor help but not for an involved or lengthy action. You can generate a greater sense of appreciation by sharing your feelings and acknowledging what needs of yours were met. For example, to a child who surprised you with a ready dinner you can say, “Oh, I feel such a relief, now I will be able to enjoy dinner and we will still be on time to play games together. Thank you so much.”
In a similar way, children want to know that their needs were met when they are being considerate. Praise words like, “You were so nice to stay quiet while I slept,” provide evaluation, not gratitude. What the children want to know is: Did you benefit from their effort? How are you feeling about it? In the case of your afternoon nap, you can say, “I feel refreshed and am grateful that it was quiet in the house. Thank you.”
Feedback consists of facts, not value judgments. It is not about good or bad but about specific details. Saying, “That was good,” tells a student very little because she has no way of assessing what caused the “goodness” and how to improve her performance. Yet, providing feedback does not have to be dry; your validation of the child’s self-satisfaction as well as your feelings can be expressed in connection with feedback. Expressing feelings can be the actual feedback when the child asks you to tell her how her creation or performance impacts her emotions.
As a parent, give feedback only when you are asked to and only precisely what you have been asked. Adding a “lesson” will, most likely, generate annoyance, as it is not respectful. If your child does not know yet to request feedback and he asks you, “was it, good Dad,” you can acknowledge, “I feel confused because I don’t know what you wish to hear.” Ask for direction, “Can you tell me precisely what you need? Would you like me to tell you if your legs were straight?” “Shall I time your run?” “Would you like me to tell you if any notes are out of tune or if your bow is straight?” Once you receive precise instructions, you can provide feedback. To a dancer, “Yes, your legs were straight twice and the back one was bent on the third leap.” To a cellist who asks if his bow changes are smooth, “They were smooth on the c and g strings and stiff on the d and strings.” If instructed to report your feelings do not use value words, only feelings; “When I look at the painting I feel absorbed.”
The relationship with a teacher is different in only one detail: The teacher need not wait for the student to ask for feedback. By coming to the lesson the child has declared his desire to get feedback and instructions. At the end of a productive lesson a teacher can express general appreciation because it is naturally connected to the specifics that occurred in the lesson; she can say, “I see a great improvement in the quality of your sound,” or, “I have enjoyed today’s practice. You are becoming a skillful tennis player.”
While you may feel overwhelmed and wish that you could be more spontaneous, realize that what feels to you like your “real self” is more likely to be a set of habits. While changing such habits, the intention of the heart is by far more important than the perfect wording. You can flunk the “vocabulary” test and throw in a few words of praise which will get “lubricated” by the vital connection you create.
Replacing praise with validation, gratitude, and, feedback is bound to generate autonomy for your child and a sense of ease for you. The child’s sense of worth must not depend on her achievements, service, or behavior. In the next article, I will elaborate on creating a context of love and appreciation – unconditionally.
©Copyright Naomi Aldort