As the bee pollinates and produces food and more plants, so we can nourish our children’s souls and bring beauty to their lives and the world. Good delivered consistently begets good. Yet I’m beginning to hear increasing concern about praising children. The often repeated phrase “Good job!” or participation awards regardless of the quality or consistency of participation may indeed become empty and contribute to problems more than strengths. Professors are pointing to research which finds that if we reward children for being kind or generous, they will stop caring for the inherent intangible rewards of helping others and become more mercenary, serving only when it serves their own purposes to earn a badge, go out for pizza or get accepted to a better college.
What I hear though is not a problem with praise, but a longing for authenticity and integrity. We don’t want shallow, meaningless words. We do want heartfelt appreciation. But surely we don’t need to wait for grand moments. Hopefully we can find beauty often in daily moments. I believe it is important for us to notice when our children do something we value and give voice to the positive observations we make. It’s unfair to ignore the good and only criticize; that is hardly likely to encourage the values we hold dear. If no one notices when children make their bed, pick up their toys, or put the backpack somewhere that it won’t be tripped over, why bother? If we cherish our time in the kitchen preparing a meal together or in the driveway playing ball, let’s say so. If we see when our child shares or stands up for someone vulnerable, they deserve to hear that we noticed and share their values.
The key to praise or simple acknowledgement that nourishes a child’s soul is authenticity. Praise that encourages is specific, noting what the child did well and why we care. Here are some samples: “Thanks for telling me what you want. I noticed how you were able to calm yourself. You have waited patiently and I appreciate that.” Our tone of voice, smile or touch should be sincere, not fake or distracted. In this way we reduce anxiety and decrease depression. We strengthen attachment and deepen relationships.
It helps if praise comes often enough that our children believe we generally notice their good points and that those qualities come in a variety of areas worth noticing. Praise should not be so rare as to be shocking. If perhaps we’ve been more critical than kind, our children may perceive us as prickly but beauty can blossom in the relationship.
We can bring light into darkness.