Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ah, so I've been doing it wrong... again.

Yes, we were away for a fabulous five weeks, four in England and one in Halifax. The best of the travelling was that it was all family related: visiting, helping out, enjoying gardening in different gardens, eating other people's cooking, playing with cousins, nieces and grandkids. Sandwiched in with all that was a huge amount of sightseeing. More on the sights later, the short version is castles, London, botanic gardens, back gardens, and allotment gardens. More walking, trains, double decker buses, and even boats than the queen has jewels. Very satisfying.

On the way home the week in Halifax was an unplanned Nana and Aunt stop filling in between nannies and filling in a gap in the backyard fence at Thing Two's eldest sister's home. That is, at my first ever baby's home. She's turned out a pretty amazing woman, thanks more to her own efforts than to my early attempts at child rearing. I was twenty-four when she was born and most of my parenting skills were of the seat-of-pants, not the way I was raised, dammit, variety. Erratic, inventive, experimental. Throw in a good dose of getting advice from my clever older sister and a fair bit of reading. The book list is worth a post on its own. The main hitch is I read, but I don't necessarily get it in one pass. Surprise! Like everything else, changing how you parent requires not just reading, but plenty of practice.

While I think I used some good techniques which weren't available in my mother's time, there's lots I wish I had done differently, not the least being actually listening to my mother when she said that children like routines and schedules. Hilarity, Thing Two's oldest sis, and her best beloved husband, are all over the routines and schedules. Clearly it pays off. For one thing, parachuting in to cover a three and a half year old and his two year old sister, was a lot simpler because their parents were able to tell us what the kids expect during the day. At twenty-four I probably would have said, well whatever, she'll be fine and left it at that.

Anyway, why I say I've been doing it wrong is that while stacking things up on a table chez Hilarity, I found an article by Alfie Kohn explaining why saying "Good job!" to a child ought to go the way of the dodo. Extinguishing that phrase from my lips is going to take some doing. But Kohn does a very persuasive rundown on why it is worth the effort. For the lead in, see his article and you will be convinced. Unless of course you do actually want to manipulate your children... and of course, it is no secret that sometimes we do. But in the end what we want is happy children who are satisfied with the choices they make and derive satisfaction not from being praised at every move they make but from the moves themselves, and the self-direction they use.

My complaint about the article was mainly that it took Kohn so long to get to the crib sheet -- the what to do instead that I can post in my kitchen and read every day until saying the right thing becomes more automatic than saying the wrong thing. I've probably wittered on that long myself now, but hey, as my grandmother used to say when there was nothing else positive to say about someone... "She means well."

So here, courtesy of Kohn, is the crib sheet. Study up.

And what can we say when kids just do something impressive? Consider three possible responses:

Say nothing. Some people insist a helpful act must be "reinforced" because, secretly or unconsciously, they believe it was a fluke. If children are basically evil, then they have to be given an artificial reason for being nice (namely, to get a verbal reward). But if that cynicism is unfounded ' and a lot of research suggests that it is ' then praise may not be necessary.

Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement ("You put your shoes on by yourself" or even just "You did it") tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback ' not judgment ' about what you noticed: "This mountain is huge!" "Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!" If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: "Look at Abigail's face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack." This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing.

Talk less, ask more. Even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking "What was the hardest part to draw?" or "How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?" is likely to nourish his interest in drawing. Saying "Good job!", as we've seen, may have exactly the opposite effect.

This doesn't mean that all compliments, all thank-you's, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child's future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life -- or to constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she's doing in its own right ' or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head

It's not a matter of memorizing a new script, but of keeping in mind our long-term goals for our children and watching for the effects of what we say. The bad news is that the use of positive reinforcement really isn't so positive. The good news is that you don't have to evaluate in order to encourage.

Copyright � 2001 by Alfie Kohn.

Thank you, Mr Kohn, and thanks to for putting that article out there for my daughter to find, and share with me.

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