There is pretty much an infinite number of reasons why parenting is hard, but one thing that only makes this already-impossible task even more difficult? Parenting experts’ opinions and advice about the “right” way to raise kids is constantly changing. Once upon a time, kids got spanked on the regular and nobody wore seat belts. Then, it was all about self-esteem and helicopter parenting and handing out participation trophies so no one got their feelings hurt. But today, parents are being told a different message: maybe ease up a little on the achievement-focused stuff. And, oh yeah, you probably shouldn’t praise your kids so much.
Many of us Millennials grew up with parents who told us we were talented and special. We were lucky enough to participate in all sorts of activities meant to enrich our learning and give us a leg up so that we could all go to fancy colleges and get degrees and live lives that were supposed to be easier than those of our well-intentioned parents and grandparents. We got all sorts of things our parents never had. But now that we’re grown? The popular opinion seems to be that, well, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.
Don’t get me wrong, the criticism piled onto Millennials in general (that we’re wimpy, entitled, lazy adults who pretty much totally suck in every way) is super overgeneralized and, frankly, totally unfair. But after becoming a parent myself, I can't help but wonder if there’s a better, more balanced way to raise our kids. Don’t get me wrong, I want my kids to be confident. But I also want to raise them to be resilient, so that they are better able to handle the reality of growing up in a world that we already know can be really, freaking brutal sometimes (did our parents grow up being cyber bullied and fat-shamed by online trolls? No, no they did not).
So what can we actually do to help our kids, according to science? A lot of articles over the past few years have discussed the implications of over-praising children, and the conclusion seems to be this: too much praise is damaging and stressful, and so is vague, unspecific praise. Not only should we just totally chill with all of the “good job!”s and the “you’re so smart!”s, but we should try much harder to actually give them useful, meaningful compliments: “you tried really hard!” or, “I really like the way you didn’t give up." According to Stanford University professor Dr. Carol Dweck, whose research specializes in mindset, motivation and self-regulation behavior, general “you’re so talented” praise actually limits children’s growth, making them afraid to fail (as failure would theoretically prove to their parents that they aren’t actually that talented at all). Specific, meaningful praise, on the other hand, gives children the encouragement they need to continue tackling new or hard tasks, building confidence around their abilities to learn new skills.
I was totally a kid who was told that she was super smart and talented, and honestly, it was pretty stressful. Even though I know there are much worse things for a child to experience in life than being constantly told how great they are (a total #firstworldproblem if there ever was one), overpraising my own kids was still something I wanted to be mindful of trying to avoid. And yet, things like “good job!”, “way to go!”, and “you’re so smart!” continue to fly out of my mom-mouth on a regular basis.
As a result, I decided to try to stick by Dweck’s example for seven days. I wanted to make a very focused effort to avoid praising my 3-year-old twins too much, or in ways that wouldn’t be helpful to them, and then I wanted to reflect back on what it was really like to put these psychological theories into practice as an everyday mom of two.
Practice Makes Perfect
My twins, Reid and Madeleine, might have been born 20 minutes apart, but they’re pretty opposite as far as their personalities go. Maddie is funny and chatty, but takes time to warm up to new people or new situations; Reid is more serious and not as talkative, but is strong and active and totally charming around strangers. Reid loves to run and climb and is incredibly strong and agile, but Maddie can be kind of clumsy and doesn’t always feel super confident with her movements the way her brother does. So when she recently decided that kicking soccer balls and throwing and catching “like a baseball player” was going to be her new favorite thing, I knew this would be a great way to put the “specific kind of praise” directive to work.
Madeleine really struggled at first. She couldn’t really kick the ball well at all, most of her throws ended up behind her when she meant to throw straight ahead, and her catching skills were non-existent. But her enthusiasm was high, and just because she wasn’t naturally an athletic prodigy (she is my daughter, after all) didn’t mean she shouldn’t enjoy the process of learning. So we spent lots of time that week “playing baseball and soccer” (which really just meant kicking and throwing the ball back and forth and cheering).
As much as I wanted to shout, “yay! Good job!” after every one of Madeleine’s (failed) attempts, I specifically tried to hold in that urge. One thing the Dweck noted is that it really isn't helpful at all to praise failed efforts thinking that it's going to boost someone's self-esteem. Instead, whenever she managed to make contact with the ball, I said, “hooray, you did it! You kicked the ball!” Madeleine loved this compliment, and soon she started saying it herself: “I did it, Mom!”
But what surprised me the most? As the week went by, she really did improve. She was able to kick the ball really well, could throw the ball directly to me most of the time, and she even made a few catches. Each time we’d play, we’d talk about how much better she was getting, and I told her how proud I was that she kept practicing and trying, and her hard work was really paying off. I was surprised at how much she was enjoying the process, and how it didn’t seem to bother her at all when she would miss or screw up. Halfway through the week she would even start to laugh and say, “try, try again!” when she’d miss, or she’d sing the song from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood that I’d reminded her of at the beginning of the week, that says, “keep trying, and you’ll get better!”
I thought about myself as a kid, how terribly un-athletic I was, and how much I loathed sports, since they were a constant reminder of something I was so blatantly terrible at. I knew that one little week of throwing and catching wasn’t going to change Madeleine’s life, but it was such a positive and fun experience for both of us that I definitely thought my conscious praising efforts were valuable. She wasn’t getting frustrated when she’d miss, but most importantly, she wasn’t walking away from this experience thinking, “I am a sports superstar and I’m so talented!”
I realized how easy it would have been to say that kind of stuff to her with the hope that it would make her enjoy what she was doing and be confident, but in reality, it wouldn’t have actually been very helpful to her at all.
My son is, well, pretty destructive. Unintentionally destructive, but destructive nonetheless. He is pretty much the reason why we don't have nice things, and why a lot of our stuff is broken on a regular basis. But as much as he loves to break stuff, he equally enjoys trying to fix things.
We have a couple wooden IKEA step-stools for the kids that we use for all kinds of things, and it didn't take long before they began to fall apart. No matter how many times I screwed the top piece back on, my son always managed to take it back off again — and then almost immediately, he'd try to put it back together.
I'd been noticing lately though that he was giving up earlier and earlier when he was having trouble putting the stool back together. "Mama fix it!" he would shout in frustration, and that was something I really wanted to work on (life is frustrating, you know?). I know that patience is something that takes A LOT of time and practice to learn (and hey, lots of adults go through life without ever learning that skill!), but what better time to start than when he's still little?
I decided to bring the stool out and to specifically take it apart.
"Hey Reid," I asked. "Do you think you can help me fix this?"
He was pretty psyched by my request, and jumped right in. But it didn't take long until he got fed up and threw the top of the stool down in frustration. I tried to stay calm and encouraging.
"Hmm, I wonder if maybe you tried to put it on there another way? Try, try, try again..."
(That Daniel Tiger song is a big deal in our house!)
"Try, try again," he mumbled under his breath as he reattempted the task.
Sure enough, this time, the top clicked into place (maybe with a little stealth nudging from Mom, but whatever).
"Wow, Reid! You kept trying and you figured it out! You could have given up, but you didn't!"
He was so thrilled by his accomplishment, so we clapped and high-fived and did a little happy dance. And then I brought him the other broken stool.
"Wanna try again? I could really use your help and patience."
He was pretty excited to get to work on the second stool, but this time, I made sure not to help him when he wasn't paying attention. He soon got frustrated and said, "Mama help!"
"Oh, I think you can figure it out," I told him. "Try, try again, remember?"
It took a while, and a few almost-meltdowns, but eventually, the piece clicked into place, and he yelled, "I did it!" beyond excited that he'd done it again.
I realized in this instance that it really helped me to go into it with the intention of being very specific. Because Reid often struggles with getting frustrated easily and throwing things, I wanted to be sure to emphasize his patience. After all, it wasn't just that he'd done a "good job," or that it was cool that he'd succeeded — it was really impressive that he persevered and figured it out even though that was hard for him to do.
Going into this experiment, I tried to think of when I was most likely to throw out the useless "oh, nice work!" or, "you're so awesome!" type of compliments, and I realized it was most often when we were just playing —and, specifically, when I wasn't really that interested or paying that much attention (that sounds bad, I know, but playing with little kids is boring sometimes). So I wanted to try to see how my responses to the twins would change when I was trying to be more present and aware of what I was saying.
Madeleine loves to color and scribble, but it's something that I usually use as a distraction technique when I'm busy doing something else, like cooking dinner ("ooh look, crayons!"). But this time I made a point to actually sit down with her and participate, which she thought was pretty cool.
Of course, being the lame grown-up that I am, I stuck to coloring inside the lines and using only colors that made sense (making the dog's fur brown and the leaves on the trees green). Madeleine, on the other hand, did that wonderful thing children do when they're young and used all of the crayons and the entire page to draw on. It was a big mess of random scribbles and color, and it looked pretty awesome.
"Look, Mom!" she said as she was coloring.
"Wow Maddie! I really like how you used all the colors! It's so vibrant."
"Yes! It is!" she replied, happily (the best part about 3 year olds in my opinion is that they haven't yet picked up on the social cue of being unnecessarily humble).
Then she decided that we should switch drawings, and she covered my paper in color as well (I drew a few colorful scribbles on her page for good measure, too).
At the end, we sat back and looked at our drawings, and I had to admit, it was pretty fun.
"High five for teamwork?"
"High five for teamwork, Mom!"
(And not one "good job" in sight.)
Is "You're So Smart" Really That Bad?
One week of conscious praise wasn't going to prove very much about the effect my words have on my kids' self-esteem, but one thing I did learn more than anything was that the comments I make when I am actually paying attention tend to be a lot different from what I say when I'm just going through the motions. We can't all be super attentive 24/7 of course, and parents are human and sometimes we just want to do and say whatever is easiest, and I know for a fact I'm still going to placate them with empty compliments sometimes. But it did show me that trying to think about what I'm saying to them — and why — was a really helpful exercise. After all, I don't just want my kids to think "Mom thinks I'm great so therefore I am great" (although I do want them to think that!). I want them to think "Mom saw that I was working hard", or "Mom noticed that I kept trying" — or even "Mom noticed that I made my picture colorful". It's not a huge, life or death, "you'll ruin your kids forever if you don't do this" difference, but it's an easy enough shift that I have no reason whatsoever not to make it.
At the end of the day though, I think we all need to take these kinds of recommendations in stride. We're all trying to do the best that we can, and we're probably all going to screw something up. As much as helicopter parenting has become vilified over the years, there's no doubt that behind that parenting style are parents who really want to do right by their kids. And let's be honest, if the worst thing we do as parents is tell our kids they're awesome too much, is it really that terrible?
One thing's for sure though: doing this experiment meant I paid more attention to my kids this week. And that is absolutely a good thing.
Images: Alana Romain (7), Trevor Ragan/YouTube