Autonomy-Supportive Parenting Tip #7: Encouragement vs. Praise
Updated: Oct 20
["There is so much evidence that the more parents support children's autonomy and the less parents attempt to control children, the better the children's achievement." Bindman, Pomerantz & Roisman, Journal of Educational Psychology, 2015, Vol. 107, No. 3, 756-770]
This is my third blog post about parentin in ways that support your child's autonomy. To read the first two posts, here's the link:
A long-time friend asked me to blog about #7 on my list of "10 ways to parent in ways that support your child's autonomy." So, here's #7 (who needs to do things in numerical order?)
7. Help your child develop a sense of self-accomplishment, rather than a desire to please. Parent using encouragement, not praise.
The other day, I was talking to another friend about a scientific paper my 21-year old son recently published about his original research (he studies the parenting practices of birds!).
The friend said, "You must be so proud!"
It makes sense, right? That's a social norm.
Now I'm gonna peel back the layers of that statement into deeper layer.
What happens if I reply back to my friend, (Choice A): "Oh yes, I'm super proud of him!"
(Choice B): "Actually, I'm quite happy for him. This is a goal he set for himself years ago. To become an Ornithologist and do original research to help bird populations. All his life, he's made choices to follow that path. Today, he's doing it and helping birds."
How does Choice B change my own emotional response? How does it support my son's autonomy?
When I say "I'm proud," my ego is involved in his outcome. It signals to my son that my "pride" in him is based on accomplishing things (rather than just being himself, however he shows up.)
When my son told me his paper was being published, I said, "Wow! I'm so happy for you! Think of all the things that will be different in the world because you did this research and you had the perseverance to write the paper and get it published. That must feel amazing to you! Are you proud of yourself? I would be if I accomplished that!"
Take a moment to reflect on how my son feels about his autonomy (being a separate person from me who can accomplish his own goals) because I responded that way, rather than saying, "I'm so proud of you."
Here's my truth about having our egos wound up in our kids' outcomes:
When we treat our kids as if they are reflections of us, they can never fully celebrate their successes as their own, and each failure carries twice the weight. ~ Elisabeth Harrod., Purpose Parenting (https://www.facebook.com/purposeparenting.net )
Think about ways to celebrate your child's accomplishments, asking how THEY feel about what THEY accomplished, rather than praising (i.e. evaluating and assessing) them and their accomplishment. It may feel like a subtle difference, try it out. Witness their reaction. Listen to how feel about your child's accomplishments and how they feel about themselves when they feel encouraged and celebrated, rather than praised and evaluated. It's huge!
The next time your child lets you know they're having a problem/challenge, rather than offering your own ideas/solutions, encourage them to figure out a solution.
I know you will find a way to get the job done.
I love the creative way you solve problems. I never would have thought of the solution you recently had when you were stuck. I'm going to use your idea the next time I find myself in that situation.
That's a tough one. Keep working on it. I know you can figure it out. You always do!
Take a deep breath and try again. Nothing worth doing is going to happen without a lot of effort. I know you got this.
Do you want to find a YouTube video to help you figure it out?
Can you think of a time you've been in this situation before and worked through it? Could that experience help you this time?
Encouraging our kids supports their autonomy. It lets them know we have confidence in them and they helps them gain confidence in themselves. We trust them. They have what they need to move forward with their own lives.
When we praise our kids:
You are such a good soccer player.
You are a really good artist.
I'm so glad you get such good grades.
We are doing a few things that do not support our kids' autonomy:
We're evaluating them. Assessing. Giving our approval.
We're sending the message that our love/support/approval is conditional on our evaluation of their results.
We're creating anxiety, self-doubt. "If my dad thinks I'm a good soccer playing, will he love me as much if I don't play well today or if I decide to quit the team?" "What if he doesn't like my next picture?" "What if I make a bad grade?"
Instead of praising/evaluating, try celebrating & encouraging:
You worked so hard! How do you feel now that it's over?
All your practice paid off today. I know some days you won't be on the winning side, but seems like continuing to practice is a good idea no matter how the next game turns out.
I can tell you've been working on your intonation. What piece are you excited to learn next?
I know you were bummed when you got a smaller part in this play, but it seems like you found ways to really make that small part shine. Did it feel that way to you?
Marshall Rosenberg, the psychologist, mediator and teacher, developed a process for supporting partnership called "Non-Violent Communication."
"According to Marshall Rosenberg, praising is a violent way of communication since it is highly manipulative and full of appraisal and judgment. It separates. [Praising] puts the people involved in the conversation on different levels. Thus, praising does not necessarily lead to enhanced motivation; it may also further interpersonal separation."
Here's a good article by Dr. Marion Badenoch Rose if you want to dig deeper into how praise is a form of violent communication:
We've looked at developing a sense of self-accomplishment and using encouragement, not praise. Let's talk about parenting in ways that help our kids do things we want them to do from a place of self-accomplishment rather than the "desire to please."
What's wrong with wanting to please? I like it when my kids do things that please me!
A simple way to put it is this: Who sets the agenda for how your kid spends their day? If a kid is on an endless quest to do what I tell them to do, their motivation is only to please me. When I'm not around supervising them, they do what they want.
What if you could find ways to parent so your kid does things that please themselves AND please you? Wouldn't that make for a more joyful, less stressful connection with your kid?
Here's what that can look like in a practical concrete way. Each night, you sit down with your child (aged 5-18, it applies the same to all ages). You have your list for tomorrow, they have their list. What do you put on your list? Call the plumber, send the email, do the laundry, sew on that button....
What does your child put on their list? Finish my LEGO tower, practice violin, read Harry Potter, play basketball, call my grandad, play on my computer....
Now let's say there's something you want your child to do tomorrow. Try saying, "Your list looks like such a fun day! I'd like to add two things to it: Please walk the dog and fold the clothes in your basket (you can do that while you watch your favorite show!). Help them put your agenda on their list.
That reminds your child, "Oh mom! I have two things I want to put on your list. Can you please get that orange construction paper I need for my project and call to set up more violin lessons?" And you put those things on your list.
The next day, you both move through your day. Not everything gets crossed off the list, but most things do and a few new ones got added. Sit down that night and go over what got done and what needs to be added to the list for tomorrow. Maybe you forgot to get the orange paper. Oops, no big deal. Everybody makes mistakes.
Have your kid put a big red star next to that and circle it on your list so you remember tomorrow. Maybe ask your child to put reminding you on their list. Maybe your kid walked the dog, but forgot to fold the laundry. You could have them bring the basket to the table right then and fold them together, you could have your child put that on the list for tomorrow, you could get their idea about how they're going to get that laundry folded. (More on what to do if your child continually doesn't do the "required" things on the list in a future Blog post.)
Relating to your kid like in ways that supports their autonomy, treats them as equals (more on this concept in future Blog posts), helps them develop a sense of doing things as self-accomplishments, rather than just to please others. Doing things just because someone else told them to do them almost always leads to resentments, power struggles. tension, anger, disappointment, frustration, and distance. When kids are INTRINSICALLY MOTIVATED to do what they want and what you want, everyone is on the same team, all pulling in the same direction!
I'd love to hear feedback on these ideas. I'd love for you to choose one or two, try them out this week and let me know how it goes. Happy autonomy supportive parenting!