Attention! The One Tactic Better Than Praising Children

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May 27, 2016

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All parents want great things for their children — intelligence, confidence, success, happiness. When our children exhibit these things, we praise them, so kids know they are valued. Praising children is also used to show them how much we love and care for them, according to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in this area.

Between these two motivations, today’s kids are showered with well-meant but careless praise. At best, it leaves them confused — a parent once told me of her guilt and shock when her 12-year-old told her, “Mom, stop telling me to work hard. You have said I’m naturally good at it.”

At worst, carelessly praising children can negatively impact learning. When kids, like the 12-year-old above, internalize praise around their natural abilities or abstract ideas, it can keep them from developing the traits — like hard work and resilience — that are actually at the root of the success and happiness we hope they will achieve.

Dweck proved this in a study that asked children to take a simple test. Some children were given careless praise that focused on their personal ability (e.g., “You must be good at this”) while others were given attentive praise that focused on the kids’ observed effort (e.g., “You have worked really hard”). After, when the same kids were given a choice between taking a simple or a harder test, 90% of the children who were praised for effort took the harder test, while most kids who were appreciated for their intelligence chose the simple option.

The word ‘attentive’ is key. Attentive parenting does more for children’s development than loosely praising children any day.

  Read more about the downside of praise on The Swaddle.

While attentive parenting seems like a complex, theoretical idea, it’s actually very simple: It means parents are both physically and emotionally present and engaged with their child. A mindful, undistracted presence means observing and responding to kids’ behaviour, questions and learnings. It provides kids with a safe and secure environment in which they can develop their own academic and social competence.

(Having said this, attentive parenting isn’t the same as helicopter parenting, where parents make all decisions across every aspect of a child’s life. Attentive parenting is about interacting, not micromanaging.)

Research shows attentive parenting (which includes attentively praising children) has benefits right from the start of life. Erik Erikson, who describes infancy as the first psychosocial stage of life in which trust or mistrust develops, established that when an infant’s basic needs are met by an attentive caregiver, it leads to the development of hope, which extends beyond the caregiver to the world.

Children at later ages benefit from attentive parenting, too. Dr Anna Sakardi recently found that the presence of an actively and consistently engaged father improved kids’ cognitive development and reduced their risk for behavioural and psychological problems. Attentive parenting can also make it easier to resolve parent-child conflict. When praising children is used to communicate love, criticism and conflict can come across as a lack of love and cause kids to fear it. Attentive parenting, however, makes it easier for both parties to separate the person from their behavior.

Long term, attentive parenting, by its very nature, allows kids to develop trust in their own abilities and judgment by fostering in them a deep sense of security. It helps instill a growth mindset that will enable children focus and persevere throughout their lives.

In practice, attentive parenting isn’t esoteric, and it’s not particularly revolutionary. It requires parents to put thoughtful effort into even the simplest of interactions: In infancy, a seemingly mundane chore like changing a diaper can be an opportunity to look a child in the eyes, speak to him and reassure him with your touch. Actively playing and speaking with a toddler also reassures her of your attention and care.

As your child grows older, listen attentively, without any distractions, when he or she speaks. Recognize his or her efforts and actions, even if they seem inconsequential; for example, when your child is reading a book, tell her, “I can see you are focusing on the book” and ask her questions — what the book is about, what she likes or dislikes about it, and why she chose it. Praise him for values and not ability, (e.g., “I like how you make time to study every day,” or “I’m proud of how patient you were with your younger brother.”) These little actions demonstrate you appreciate your child as a unique person whose efforts establish an identity.

While we all look for a magical potion to raising happy, successful, well-adjusted kids, there is no shortcut. But the effort to be an attentive parent is worthwhile. As psychoanalyst and author Stephen Gronz writes, “Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness — the feeling that someone is trying to think about us — something we want more than praise?”

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Written By Sonali Gupta

Sonali Gupta is a practicing clinical psychologist with 10 years of experience. She conducts workshops to enhance the emotional well-being of couples, parents and children. She can be reached at sonaligupta297@gmail.com. You can find more of Sonali’s thoughts on Twitter (@guptasonali) and on her website, guptasonali.com

See all articles by Sonali

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