A Tangible Approach to Time

Parenting is the most rewarding yet most challenging job there is. Children change so quickly. What worked yesterday may not work today, and what works today may not work tomorrow. Being creative in our parenting is practically a must.

Each child is different and needs to have her needs met in a way that works for her. Honesty and communication can ease anxiety and help a child to understand the world around him. Finding ways to explain certain concepts, ideas or situations to young children may take some creative thinking but is far better than dismissing a concept as being too mature for a child to comprehend.

My husband has a wonderful job that he excels at. His career and hard work allow me the privilege to be home to raise our daughter. My daughter and I have endless amounts of fun together every day, and we are certainly just about as close as mother and daughter can be. While our little girl definitely enjoys her mommy time, she is undoubtedly Daddy’s little girl. She stands watch at the door when she knows he is on his way home, loves to play with him every evening, and looks forward to family time on weekends.

My husband’s job does require a certain amount of travel. Since becoming parents, we have been rather fortunate that there has been minimal travel, usually not amounting to more than a few days at a time. The last time my husband had to go out of town, our daughter was a little over a year old and didn’t entirely understand the concept of him leaving. She was happy when he was returned home but didn’t seem to be too affected by his absence.

This past business trip, however, required my husband to be out of town for two weeks. Two weeks is a long time for us to be apart from our favorite person.

While technology has made it much easier to keep in touch during the absence of a loved one (Face Time has been our family favorite), time can still be a difficult concept for toddlers to fully comprehend. Our daughter is two and understands pretty well the meaning of yesterday and tomorrow. Explaining to her the concept of Daddy being gone for two weeks, however, was not an easy task. I decided to make a tangible representation of two weeks for our daughter in the form of a countdown chain.

At the end of each day, after a Face Time session with Daddy, I had our daughter tear off a link in the chain. Each link represented a day that Daddy was gone. At the end of the chain was a circle with the words “Daddy is Home!”

This method worked brilliantly. With each paper link she tore off, our daughter would happily say, “We are one day closer to Daddy!” While our little girl certainly missed her daddy, she found it much easier to understand when he was coming home with the help of her countdown chain.

Children are far brighter than we sometimes give them credit for. Just because they are not able to fully understand a concept in the way that an adult might, it doesn’t mean that they are unable to understand that very same concept when put in terms that they can relate to.

All it takes is a little creativity and a whole lot of love.

Why Kids Don’t Need Praise (And What They Need Instead)

Recently, I was chatting with a mom at the playground about kids’ behavior, and she commented to me that kids need praise and approval from their parents, as there are too many dysfunctional adults in the world to indicate otherwise.

To this, my response was, “I think what they need more than praise and approval is encouragement and acceptance.”

“Isn’t that kind of the same thing?”

Not really.

I understand where she’s coming from; she means that many adults have emotional and behavioral problems because growing up, they needed something from their parents that they simply didn’t get (or didn’t get enough of). I agree. And this thinking–that kids need an abdunance of praise from their parents in order to grow up confident and emotionally stable–is not uncommon. The thing is, it’s not actually praise and approval kids need.

You may argue this is just semantics, but it’s really so much more.

When I hear people say that kids need praise, what I think they really mean is encouragement. Praise is superficial and non-descriptive. It’s “Good job,” or, “I like that” or, “That’s a pretty picture,” or, “Excellent work.” It’s generic and leaves a person wanting more, needing more…not feeling quite satisfied. Our self esteem might be high while we’re receiving praise, but if it ever stops, we either seek out more or get discouraged about its absence. Praise is an external motivator and must be constantly applied to remain effective.

Encouragement meets the same purpose as praise and speaks to a more meaningful sense of accomplishment. Encouragement gets to the “why” of praise. It communicates what’s so ‘good’ about something, why we’re proud, what we love about it, or the qualities that make it excellent.  Encouragement takes praise a step further with messages of effort, persistence, thought…the deeper reasons behind why someone should be proud of their accomplishments.

Good job; you worked so hard on that!

That’s a pretty picture; there’s so much detail in there.

I’m proud of you; that took a lot of patience and you never gave up.

And it’s the encouragement that’s important. The praise can stay or go (some would argue that it should go), but the words of encouragement are all a child really needs to hear. If the feedback they hear from you is, “You worked so hard,” or, “Boy, there’s so much detail in your painting,” or, “That sure took a lot of patience,” there’s nothing lost and a lot gained. It’s the same message of enthusiasm that is now focused solely on the child and the things we value: effort, hard work, persistence.

But, you may ask, without the good job we’ve taken out the part about our approval, haven’t we? If we never say “Good job,” or, “I like that,” or, “I’m proud of you,” they’ll think we don’t approve of their work–of them–and have low self esteem, right? Won’t they always be seeking approval?

Not if we’re communicating effectively; deeply. If all we ever offer is the superficial stuff, the blanket praise without any meaning behind it, kids will always seek approval because they’ll never feel satisfied. But if we’re offering meaningful and genuine encouragement for their achievements, they won’t need our approval. They’ll approve of themselves.

So, more accurate than saying kids need a parent’s approval is to say they need our acceptance. Kids don’t need us to approve of everything they do, they need us to accept everything about who they are. Yes, even the mistakes, the misbehaviors, the unpleasant feelings they sometimes often express. We don’t have to approve, but we do need to accept. It’s the acceptance, not the approval, that works miles towards developing long term relationships and teaching discipline, responsibility, confidence, and self-love.

We accept children by hearing their feelings without judging them, by empathizing without evaluating, and comforting without criticizing. We accept that they had a bad day and their behavior is reflecting their feelings. We accept that sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes they need to cry, sometimes they don’t behave perfectly. That doesn’t mean we approve of the harsh language, the harm they inflict on others, or damage they may cause to personal property. But we accept it is a part of being human, growing up, and learning to manage big feelings and fix mistakes. We accept them for who they are today, right now. And we’ll do the same thing again tomorrow. And again every day until they’re all grown up. And even then too.

A parent’s approval will never matter to our children as much as our acceptance will. We don’t have to approve of anything our children do if we can accept everything about who they are.

It’s not semantics, it’s perspective. As soon as we understand there’s a difference between praise and encouragement, approval and acceptance, we begin to interact more authentically with our children. With encouragement and acceptance comes the development of a child’s self confidence and the ability to rest in the security of an unconditional relationship.

A portion of this post has been excerpted from Encouraging Words for Kids, by Kelly Bartlett, an ebook highlighting alternatives to praise.

5 Encouraging Phrases Kids Need to Hear

It’s no secret that kids need encouragement to thrive. But what exactly does encouragement sound like? It’s different than praise or admiration or guidance. It is common to want to give evaluative feedback to kids for their work (“Good coloring!”), or to tell them what we like about their accomplishments (“I like how you set the table.”), or what we expect of their behavior. (“You need to try your best at school today.”) Though these kinds of responses are well meaning, they teach kids to rely on our evaluations rather than to learn to form their own judgments about behavior.

Alfie Kohn, researcher and author of Punished by Rewards, says that kids can come to depend on praise and external validation instead of finding satisfaction in doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. “Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval,” says Kohn. He recommends that parents focus on supporting and encouraging their child’s efforts, rather than on praising the results.

Encouragement is about teaching kids to see the value of their own accomplishments and to be in charge of their own success. It fosters internal strength and motivation by keeping the focus of children’s behavior on themselves instead of anyone else. As psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs said, “A child needs encouragement like a plant needs water.” Here are five encouraging things to say to your kids on a regular basis:

“Thank you!”

For tasks that a child has completed, let him know his efforts are appreciated. Tell him, “That helped a lot,” and, “I appreciate the time you spent on this.” It lets him know that his work is meaningful and he is an important contributor to the family. Saying ‘thank you’ is no less celebratory than saying ‘good job.’ Expressing gratitude for a job well done still communicates excitement and pride. The difference is you don’t need to tell your child that what he did was good; he will inherently feel it.

“You did it!”

Use this kind of encouragement for when a child has achieved a goal or milestone. Cheer for her by focusing on the effort it took to get there, rather than on the outcome. Instead of saying, “I like how you built that Lego tower,” respond with, “Wow you worked hard on that!”, “Look at what you accomplished!”, or, “You must feel proud.” Responses like these focus the accomplishment on the child’s inner work, rather than on a parent’s external evaluation. It’s much more encouraging to say, “You sure never gave up during your game!” than, “You won your game, good job.”

“It’s OK to cry.”

It’s important for kids to know that their feelings are always OK. Learning how to manage these feelings takes support, acceptance, and lots of practice. Encourage kids by communicating that they are not wrong to experience unpleasant feelings like sadness, anger, or fear. Instead of saying, “You’re OK. Don’t be upset,” let your child know, “You have the right to feel angry. I understand; I would feel mad, too.” Or, “I can see you feel very sad right now, and that’s OK.” Validating your child’s feelings leads to his own acceptance of them, and the realization that he is capable of handling them.

“I’m listening.”

What could be more encouraging than to know someone is receptive to what you have to say? Active listening validates a child’s sense of significance and belonging in the family; they know they’re important and they matter. Let kids know you’re taking their thoughts seriously by echoing their statements back to them. There should be some back-and-forth with open-ended questions (“What would you do about that?”), empathy (“Wow, you must have felt scared.”), and reflections (“Oh, you decided to take a break so you could calm down.”) Good listening sounds more like a conversation than a one-sided monologue. When a child is heard, she feels known.

“I trust you.”

Instead of providing the answers and directing kids toward what to do, encourage them to make decisions and solve problems by letting them know you trust their ability to decide for themselves. Say things like, “I know you can figure this out,” “I have faith in you to find a solution,” “I know you’ll make an appropriate decision,” or “You lead the way on this.” Entrusting kids to make their own decisions is very empowering for young children! It shifts the dynamic from a parent’s control over a child to one of shared control. It encourages kids to think through problems and come up with their own solutions.

Remember that by opting for encouragement over praise, you’re not ignoring your kids’ accomplishments or successes. Encouragement is simply about keeping your response focused on their efforts and feelings as opposed to only the outcomes. Encouraging words not only reassure kids during times of success (“Wow, that took a lot of concentration!”), but also in times of disappointment (“I have faith in you to fix this mistake.”). Instead of looking to a parent for affirmation, kids are able to decide how they feel about themselves. Their failures and successes, as they should be, are about them, not anyone else.

Kelly Bartlett is the author of Encouraging Words For Kids, a new ebook with over 150 examples of things to say to inspire a child’s confidence.