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Thoughts about a book and parenting trends

Submitted by Heather on Wed, 11/07/2018 - 17:23

We host coffee hours a couple of times a month for our preschool parents. During these coffee hours a fellow early educator and mentor, Susan North, and myself (Director at Caterpillar Cottage) present a topic and discussion that is relevant to parenting preschoolers, such as discipline, media, sibling rivalry or numerous other topics. This is also a time where parents have opportunity to bring up and discuss any topics that are pressing for them.

Recently, we hosted a coffee hour where the topic was about the differences between praise and encouragement. This topic reminded Susan of a book she loves called Your Child’s Self Esteem, written by Dorothy Corkille Briggs. She commented about how she remembers that the book and possibly other similar books inadvertently caused parents in the 70’s and 80’s to regularly heaping praise on their children. Although this was not an intention or advice from the author, parents wanted their children to feel good about themselves and thought that frequent praise was the way to do it. I commented about how likewise the trend over the past 20 years or so seems to have been to say “good job” after everything a child participates in.  

I purchased the book and have been reading it since. It is a wonderful book, but I can see how parents may have interpreted her words as direct instruction to heap on the praise for actions in particular, especially in a passage I will quote here:

“Here is a distinction that needs careful attention.

Countless books and articles urge parents and teachers to lean heavily on praise [this book was written in 1967]. And many experiments show that it far outweighs punishment as an effective behavior manipulator. Of course. Children want positive reflections and they will jump through hoops to get them. They want our approval.

There is, however, a subtle yet important difference between positive labels (“good” or “nice”) applied to a child’s person and approval (“I appreciate” or “I like”) directed toward acts. The point is that to believe in himself a child must not have to question his worth as a person. That must always be clearly understood. It is not clear to a child when he is told that he is a good boy because you like what he did.”

The author goes on to talk about separating behavior from self and avoiding the traps of judgement. In the above passage, what I’m noticing most is how interesting it is that at least in the past 20 years, the trend has been to regularly say “good job.”  Well intentioned parents everywhere have passed down using this term that may have developed in part due to the popularity of this author’s writings and her specific attention to helping parents understand the difference between appraising a person and appraising a behavior (moving from “good boy” to “good job”).

There is another quote from this author that worth considering: “Whenever personal worth is dependent on performance, personal value is subject to cancellation with every misstep.” Such a wise and true thing, but I could easily see more parents interpreting this again as making sure children feel they are doing a “good job” with every effort by telling them so. And this would again be a good-intentioned misinterpretation of the text.

This is the difficulty with parenting trends in general. The interactions that the professionals in the field are advocating for are not easily simplified to a formula. What is at stake has to do with the quality of the relationship. A person of strong self-worth is not built on a tower of accolades. She is grown in an environment where she sees in the close relationships she has with others an overall welcoming and loving regard, a reflection that she is understood, her voice is important, that her parents’ voices are important, and evidence that she is worthy of their time and engagement. That becomes, in turn, how she feels about herself. This is not accomplished through short-hand turns of phrase, it comes from a long-term genuine commitment to know, understand and support.  It requires of us honesty, clarity of needs, vulnerability, the willingness to consistently connect, and the willingness to make amends when we fail. Our saving grace in conscious and connected parenting is that we know we will make mistakes, we understand that trying is more important than failing, and that forgiveness comes easily when love is true.

Parenting is a journey, full of potholes and mis-steps, a tricky road in the best of scenarios, and what matters most is that your child feels you care, knows you want to be connected, and that you appreciate her. This starts with giving yourself the gift of acceptance and knowing that you will figure it all out along the way. Not every day or moment is going to be easy. The details and interactions we can always talk about, reflect on, and grow from. But hopefully we can remember that the bedrock of all good parent/child relationships is that there is love, respect, lots of time spent together, and the desire to know each other more.