Chapter 6: Encouragement

Children, and adults, often need encouragement when learning a new skill or concept. To examine this concept, consider the ways in which you encourage, or discourage, yourself. What is your inner language when encountering a new concept, or when the events in your life are not going according to plan? Do you find yourself thinking encouraging, or pragmatic thoughts? Conversely, do you find yourself thinking self-defeating thoughts such as: “I should know this by now.”, or, “of course everything went awry, if only I had…..” If you fall into the latter camp, the type of encouragement you offer to your children can become veiled in pessimism. This type of encouragement offers the message that their choices are not good enough because of a deeply underlying problem. Consider the following statement: “You know better than this. Is this how we clean up?” The underlying message conveys, “You chose poorly because something is inherently wrong with you.” Think about how that type of inner language and expressive language would assist someone who is attempting to accomplish a challenging task. It does not sound very motivating or helpful.

On the flip side, we have the type of praise that offers a blanket statement without description. The phrase, “good job” is often heard in everyday conversation. Let’s consider the outcomes of using this phrase with our children. From a judgement standpoint, we label when we use the phrase “good job!” That phrase conveys, you did what I wanted, so your actions are worthy of praise. Most parents truly do want their children to perform tasks, and interact within their community through intrinsic motivation; not because they expect some sort of reward. When we use the phrase “good job”, we are essentially providing a reward. Children, and adults, soon get the message that only work that meets certain expectations is appreciated.

When we describe a child’s actions, we are teaching them how their actions benefitted others. This is a certain recipe for instilling intrinsic motivation to be part of a community of caring citizens. Another benefit includes preparing children for a lifetime of learning new concepts because they desire more knowledge; not because they want to please others. Describing our children’s actions also challenges us to be present with our children. Noticing and describing say to our children, “I am here with you, and I celebrate your choices and your efforts.” Using the phrase “good job” does not require much presence, and does not motivate children, nor does it help them to understand the benefits of their actions or appreciate the process that hard work entails.

So, how can we shift from “good job” to noticing and describing? Consider the following recipe:

  • You (describe what you witnessed). That was (insert benefit of the child’s actions. Was it kind, helpful, brave?)

  • Example: You picked up the crayons. That was helpful!

When you feel that you are more comfortable with this language, move toward explaining why a child’s actions are beneficial. This is where we truly begin teaching children the benefits of their actions. Consider the following:

  • You (describe what you witnessed), so (describe the benefit). That was (insert the benefit of the child’s actions)

  • Example: You got your friend’s coat so she would be warm. That was helpful!

The net result of these types of interactions are children who feel proud of their accomplishments. Our children are capable beings who can contribute to their community. They can certainly learn new tasks, and obtain knowledge because they have an intrinsic need to learn; not because they want to please others. We can create a community of helpful, motivated, and children who are present with each other!

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