I don’t like it a bit when adults treat teenagers like children. But in my estimation, demanding more than people can possibly deliver is even more toxic than under-challenging them. In a reasonably healthy environment kids will rise to life’s challenges. Children want to learn and grow because learning and growing are stimulating and fun. But real learning and growth are retarded in an overly demanding environment where failure is intolerable. If failure is unacceptable, trial and error learning is right out as a learning strategy and kids resort to bluffing, compliance, docile repetition, and playing it safe. What could be less challenging, and ultimately more useless than that? There’s got to be a better way...
I recommend you do at least this: For the next 30 days, refuse to be overly demanding with your child, just to see what happens. Beyond that, if you have the imagination and energy, I’m convinced that affirming is better by far than simply not demanding.
Affirming looks at a behavior or a process and responds with a constructive, concrete endorsement: You did that well. I admire your work. Congratulations on a job well-done. Affirming how a child performs isn’t connected to whether she is nice, pretty, smart, or good. Affirming is more objective than that.
It’s also more specific. You’re really fast! isn’t nearly as good an affirmation as You sure ran a good race! Can you tell me how you knew when to start your sprint at the end?
Affirming begins with honoring excellence, then continues by inviting interaction. Affirming is independent of outcomes. It isn’t necessary for a child to win the race for her to be affirmed for her skill and dedication as a runner. So affirming is more realistic than demanding (which stands at one end of the spectrum) and praising (which stands at the other end). In this case, both extremes are unhealthy.
Demanding <—— Affirming ——> Praising
Each model has its place.
ORTHODOXY <—> ORTHOPRAXY
Multiplication tables <—> Striking a fair deal
Alphabets <—> Writing a good letter
Telling jokes <—> Being funny
Naming the organs in <—> Locating the organs in the
the abdominal cavity abdominal cavity by touch
Most of the things parents teach their children are based less in orthodoxy than orthopraxy (if you home school, you’ll do well if you master both learning models). Personal skills, relational skills, social skills, decision making, problem solving—these are learned in the process of trial, error, correction, training, and retrial. Consequently, parents are in a unique position to celebrate the learning process by affirming each trial, using failure as the context for correction and training, and applauding the next attempt.
When will you have a better chance to teach a child how to clean the kitchen than when he is four years old and eager to help? Why not put away the good dishes and sharp knives and let the little guy lend a hand? His attention span guarantees he won’t help for long in the beginning and he needn’t be criticized for losing interest. Instead, acknowledge and affirm every effort as specifically as possible. Thank you for helping me clear the napkins from the table is better than, You’re such a good boy to help Daddy clean the kitchen when what the child did was clear napkins from the table.
In fact, here’s how you’ll know if you’re trying too hard to with affirmation. Affirming looks at an action and offers soberly generous appreciation. If you overstate the affirmation, you’re trying too hard—I couldn’t have cleared the table without you is almost certainly an overstatement.
If you turn affirming into praising, I would say you’re really trying too hard. Praising makes artificial connections between an action and the worth of the person. That’s serious business.
Think about it: A kid brings home an excellent report card. The affirming parent says, Good job! Congratulations! You must have worked hard to earn those grades—is that true? Tell me what it took to get these grades. and the two of them are off on a learning exercise that reinforces the processes that led to the child’s success. That process may also uncover a class in which the child is under-challenged and lead to an exploration of effective ways to up the ante in that subject.
Another young’un brings home the same report card to a parent who settles for praising instead of affirming. She says, You’re so smart! I’m so proud of you! Kids, look how smart your sister is! Wow! All A’s! Look at it close, boy—it’s just got the one letter so I know you can read it. I think you could all learn something from your sister’s success.
The kids have learned that a good report card is its own reward. Process means nothing; outcome is everything. Therefore, the boy will be tempted hide his next report card if it’s not up to par. And his sister, the smart one, will be tempted to cheat rather than risk bringing home a less-than-perfect report. She may or may not know the secrets of her own success. Her teachers may or may not have the insight and time required to draw out her description of the dedicated energy and imagination it took to earn the grades she brought home. If nobody draws that out then, as far as the girl knows, it’s magic. She won’t have many ideas about how to repeat it if she doesn’t know how it happened in the first place.
While I’m on this little rant about praising, let me note that much praise is offered for things children have nothing to do with. You’re so pretty! My, you’re a big boy! Look at those beautiful blue eyes! These are genetic predispositions or acts of God, or both. Children who get praise for things outside their control tend to become suspicious of people and nervous about their own worth. It’s a particularly harsh setup for women whose looks will change radically over time. If the girl’s self-esteem was anchored in being pretty, the woman’s self esteem will suffer when she is no longer girlishly attractive.
Back to the main point: Later that same evening—the day the report cards came home—the boy’s parent decides to make amends: I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, little man. You’re a sweet boy. We can’t all be as smart as your sister. Poor guy. How can he improve his learning process if the only secret to success he knows is becoming his sister?
— from Raising Adults