Tiny Shift, Big Impact: How You Praise Your Kids Can Make All the Difference

Remember that day last summer when I took the girls to the pool and I decided to get out of the middle of the parenting road (because heck it’s dangerous standing there!)?

Here’s the scene:  I’ve got two 9 year old girls, my daughter Sonja and her friend Gracie. These girls are avid swimmers, eager to get to the pool to play. I fantasize that our trip will include my making serious headway with my summer reading (even tho it’s September), while they amuse themselves.  

As it is with parenting, my expectation of time for myself proves a pipe dream as they repeatedly ask me to watch their antics in the water.

I decide to go all in and be present with the girls. I see them with their faces all lit up and full of life because they can tell — I’m all in.

What does being present with them look like?

Their request for attention begins simply.

For the first ten minutes its,

“Mom, tell us who has the biggest splash when we jump in!”

This is easy.

For the next five minutes,

“Mom, now who’s got the smallest splash?”

Next the requests get more complicated.

“We’re going to each make up a dance and you tell us which one is better. We won’t care which one you choose… PLEEEEEEEEASE.”

What kind of attention do I give the girls?

These are the two choices I imagine:

  1. The fluffernutter with jelly beans sandwich! Equalize the good stuff – like an overdose on sweets. I’ll go back and forth stating whose performance is best.

Wonderful, beautiful. Oh such great moves. I’ll continue with loads of oooohing and Ahhhing. Wow’s coming flying out of my mouth and a resounding you girls are amazing!

Hyperboles abound aimed at both girls, alternating names. They’ll each feel the rush of being the BEST!

  1. I take a moment to process this request and then say to the girls,

No, that kind of judging is what we call ‘subjective’ — which means just one person’s opinion — and that’s going to be too hard for me.  

“Please mom, I promise we won’t care which one you pick.”

No sweetie.

As a result, the girls decide to create individual dances and ask me to watch them after a few moments of practice.

I  support them by being present.

In this scenario I’ve decided to simply pay attention to them. I have the presence of mind to respond genuinely to their beautiful 9 year old bodies moving with the raw vitality.

I smile.

I make eye contact.

I smile.

My response doesn’t sound or even look like much. I feel mellow… down right relaxed even and heck I’m enjoying myself 🙂

I notice that when my daughter pops out of the water, during a particular dance move, her eyes are fixed on my eyes – am I looking at her?

She smiles and I smile back. A simple genuine and powerful encouragement connection.

The girls are laughing and having a ball.

They’re being graceful and silly at the same time; authentically creative.

I love being their audience and simply encourage them by noticing, laughing, hooting, oooohing.

My comments sound like,

“Looks like you’re learning moves from each other.”

“Did that hurt?”

“Fun!”

I bite my tongue to keep from spouting judgments (albeit positive) and opinions.

After years of teaching parenting classes, I still find biting my tongue to be one of my greatest parenting tools :).

While the automatic over the top enthusiastic responses feel like the way to be a supportive parent, they aren’t.

Carol Dweek’s work on praise vs. effort vs. intelligence is explained in this short video.

Simply paying attention is down right relaxing for me and I can see it’s freeing for the girls as I watch them become more goofy, beautiful and collaborative with every new dance.

They’re not dancing to please me, but to please themselves.

During the next hour I have a singular, delightful focus. Even now, a year later, it’s a rich memory for me. I can still see the girls’ lit faces, their determination, their playfulness.

Deciding to pay attention without praising is powerful and allows your child to be playful— to be themselves.

Look for opportunities to be with your children — to pay attention to them without fanfare but with your full, genuine awareness. See what you notice in yourself and your kids. And then come back and share your experiences in the comments.

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