Kelly Bartlett is one of my e-friends; though have never met in person, the interactions we have had over email and digital media makes me feel like I could sit down for coffee with her tomorrow and we would chat like old friends. Kelly’s blog, Parenting From Scratch [http://parentingfromscratch.wordpress.com], and her book, Encouraging Words for Kids [http://www.kellybartlett.net/book.htm], have both been enormously helpful to me in my journey as a parent and educator.
Many of us have heard of the notion that praising kids might not nurture the traits we hope for in our children, but the practice of shifting our vocabulary can be overwhelming! Encouraging Words for Kids is like the how-to manual for those of us trying to raise kids without saying “Good job!”
I am grateful that Kelly agreed to let me ask her a few questions and offered a copy of her book to one lucky reader! (Instructions for entering the giveaway at the bottom!)
EP: What led you to write this book?
KB: I read Alfie Kohn’s “Unconditional Parenting” when my children were young and liked the concept a lot. I wanted to raise kids who aren’t motivated by rewards and praise but instead have an internal drive to do what’s right and to do a “good job” because doing so simply aligns with their work ethic. When I first started making a shift away from using blanket praise (like telling my children “Good job!” for every little thing), I was often left wondering, “But now what should I say?” If my child did something amazing or celebratory, I couldn’t just sit there quietly! But if “good job” wasn’t the most effective way to respond, what was the alternative? I found many other parents had the same question, and I put this book together as a response. It’s over 150 examples of what encouragement without praise sounds like, in a variety of different types of situations. It’s meant to be a strong, practical start to help parents understand what unconditional communication sounds like.
EP: One question I am frequently asked is, “What about all the adults who don’t talk to our kids this way?” (teachers, care providers, family) – do you have any helpful tips for this?
KB: Yes, that is hard! Remember that the people who have the most influence on a child’s life are the ones to which that child is attached–mom and dad. While it’s true that children will experience different interactions with different people in their lives, the ones that will have the most impact on their development are the ones they’ll have with you. So make sure you touch base with your kids often about what’s going on in their lives and the experiences they have when they’re not with you.
My son once won a medal on his football team for participation. It was the weekly medal the coaches gave out–every week a different child “won” it for doing a “good job.” I didn’t agree with this practice, but could see that my son really enjoyed playing on the team. When he received the medal, my husband and I made sure to talk to him about it…not about why he got the medal, but about why he enjoyed playing on the team. We talked about good it felt when he scored touchdowns and how proud he was when was able to dodge players who were after his flag. And this medal would now remind him of the fun times he had at practices and games. We wanted to make sure he was aware of the reasons he played–for the fun and the sport and the friends–not for any material rewards it might bring.
So when your child has “conditional” moments with teachers or other adults in her life, try to reframe those moments with her and focus on the actions behind it rather than just the outcome. Ask questions about her behavior, her thoughts, her feelings. How did she feel when she shared her sandwich with her friend who had no lunch? What made her decide to add more detail to her school project? Try to articulate the reasons behind the teacher’s desire to praise or reward and help your child see the value in her actions. This will go far in helping to develop that “inner compass” even when other adults interact with your kids differently than you do.
EP: What about children who flat-out ask: “Do you like this picture?” or “Do I look pretty?” Do you have any suggestions for managing this?
KB: I like to draw attention to the details that stand out to me most. For example, if my answer would be that yes, I do like the picture, I’ll first stop to consider why I like it and communicate that instead of just giving a general “Oh yes, it’s excellent.” It might sound something like this: “Wow! The colors are so vibrant! And I notice you covered the whole page which makes it extra eye-catching. My favorite thing is this tiny dog you drew right here in the corner. What’s your favorite part?” So I’m giving feedback without teaching a child to need someone else’s approval. He is able to decide for himself what to like about his picture, how he feels about it, what he would change, and how satisfied he is with it. His works stays about him.
EP: Any final words of encouragement for parents or care providers?
KB: It does take more time to respond to kids with encouragement versus a quick statement of praise, but very worthwhile in the long run for their development of self-esteem and confidence. Kids grow up free of the constraints that come with always needing someone else’s approval to feel good about themselves. How valuable is that? And I will say this: it gets easier! The more you practice using encouragement versus praise, the easier it is to respond in this way. Start with a few key phrases to replace–swap “good job” for “thank you!” or “wow!”–and you very quickly get the feel for the language of unconditionality. Soon, it begins to feel strange to give statements of praise without any additional feedback or encouragement behind it.
Would you like to win your own copy of Encouraging Words for Kids? Leave a comment below with a word of encouragement for parents or educators of young children. I will draw the winner randomly in one week.
Kelly Bartlett is a Certified Positive Discipline Educator, Attachment Parenting Leader and mother of two. She writes and speaks regularly on the topics of child development, family relationships and discipline, and her articles have appeared in parenting magazines worldwide. You can connect with her at www.kellybartlett.net.