Sometimes when parents attempt to help their children improve their behavior, performance, work habits, or interpersonal skills, they use approaches that achieve just the opposite of what they had intended or, at best, seem to have no effect at all.
While a parent might have intended to give helpful instruction by pointing out what her child was doing wrong, the child may have taken her words as criticism. It seems that some parents have gotten the mistaken idea that in order to get their kids to perform better, they first have to make them feel worse!
As a parent, part of your responsibility is to help your children to succeed in school, to be competent in the world, to manage social relationships well, and to develop better judgment. But at what cost? Many of the usual methods that parents use actually chip away at their children’s feelings of competency and of being loved. These strategies can interfere with a positive relationship between you and your child.
So, how can you help your children to “do the right thing” and to “be all that they can be” without damaging their self-esteem or your connection with them? How can you help them to recognize areas where they may need improvement without engendering resentment, discouragement, or defensiveness?
This is where the gift of encouragement comes in.
- is a subtle way that parents can powerfully influence their children’s behaviors, attitudes, and habits.
- is a tool that enables parents to inspire their children to new levels of maturity, accomplishment, and self-pride.
- imparts confidence, gives support, and enhances internal motivation.
- can result in just the behavioral and attitudinal changes parents would like to see.
- fosters independence, high self-esteem, and a willingness to explore and experiment.
- communicates that it is acceptable to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes.
This all sounds very good on paper, but how can you translate this into everyday life with your children? An example most parents can relate to is how you react when your baby takes his first wobbly steps. A 12-month-old who tumbles to the floor as he tries to walk does not need someone to say impatiently, “Can’t you learn to walk yet? You need to hold yourself steady.” Rather, he needs someone to be there to help him up if he falls, to applaud and to celebrate his attempts, and to tell him, “I know you can do it. Try again. I will be here to help you.” That is what encouragement looks like.
While it is easy to be that parent encouraging his young toddler to take those first steps, it is more difficult to remember to give those same supportive and bracing messages as children grow. But older children need them just as much as their younger counterparts because encouraging words have the same effect on them of instilling confidence, determination, pride in accomplishment, and the knowledge that their parents are there to support them if they “fall.”
Looking for the Good
Shifting focus to the positive in your children’s behavior is a big part of encouragement. This sometimes takes a conscious effort on your part. Here are some very specific techniques that can be helpful in achieving this different perspective and approach:
- Use praise by noticing the positive things they do and comment on them. Think of the “one a day” technique – praise each of your children at least once a day – even the smallest thing can be worth your attention. Their behavior may not change immediately, but they will start to do more of what you notice and acknowledge. What you see is what you get, over time.
- Express appreciation when your children are helpful and cooperative. Don’t take children’s efforts for granted. Even when they do assigned chores, it helps to notice and to appreciate their cooperation. Everyone likes to be recognized for his efforts. For example, “You were a big help to me tonight by setting the table for dinner.”
- Focus on the positive even in the most negative situation. Although difficult to do, this can send a powerful message to your child of your belief in him. Sometimes you can overlook parts of a job not done and acknowledge what was done. It may inspire your child to finish the job. For example, commenting on a desk newly cleaned and organized, “You really worked on getting your desk in order. It looks great and I bet it is easier to find things on it.” Wait until another time to comment on the messy closet.
- Give positive support for each step in the learning process. Just as you applaud every new step a toddler makes instead of waiting until he can walk around the block without falling, parents can use this same approach with every area of their children’s lives in which they would like to see improvement. Break the learning task into smaller, more achievable goals so your children can feel successful all along the way. For example, “You have gotten a good start with your project by checking out resources.” When you focus on the small steps toward a goal, children get the message that “even if I don’t get everything right, my parents still appreciate what I do. It’s worth making the effort.”
- Show confidence by involving your children in the decision-making process. Confidence is gained through action and participation. By letting children be involved in age-appropriate decision-making, you are saying you have confidence in their abilities and trust them to make good decisions. For example, “Let’s brainstorm ideas for our family vacation. Maybe you can look on the internet to find places where we can go.”
- Beware of the power of self-fulfilling prophecies and use its positive aspects to your advantage. Many times without realizing it, parents expect the worst from their kids, setting the stage for a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. Switch to the positive expectations: treat your kids as if they are the people you would like them to be and there is a good chance that that is how they will develop. Your beliefs about your children have an enormous impact on their self-concept and behavior. Be a storehouse for times when your children act in a way that opposes a negative perception. For example, to a child who is acting very self-centered, you might remind her, “When Grandma was sick, you immediately painted that beautiful picture for her. You were so thoughtful.”
- Celebrate mistakes. Keep in mind that children are in a process of growth and experimentation. Learning and making mistakes is a part of development. If your children fail at something, it does not mean they are failures; it gives them information about what not to do in the future and areas in which they can improve.
- Recall past positive experiences. You are in a wonderful position to nurture your children’s self-esteem by recalling their past successes. Keep track of your children’s progress in various areas and tell them often how much more skillful, responsible, understanding, adventurous, etc. they are now than they were a month or a year ago. Because you are a treasure chest of their triumphs and noble deeds, you can remind them in difficult moments of how far they have come. For example, you can remind a child who is struggling to read a new book that at the beginning of the school year he was still having trouble sounding out three-letter words. This helps kids to recognize and appreciate their developing capabilities, acknowledge the positive things about themselves, and be hopeful about their future potential.
The way to bring out the best in someone is not to look for the flaws and imperfections but to look for the good qualities. If you are able to build up a positive, overflowing bank account of good feelings and work on building a good relationship through the use of encouragement and praise, then your children will be in a better position to weather any setbacks or frustrations they encounter. The more you look for the good in your children, the more you will find it.
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