There are two articles you should read this week: one to make you feel better, and one to make you snort with derision. I hope.

Both articles suggest that we should rethink some things we’ve been told about parenting, but one is very helpful and one is very unhelpful- another example of the parenting panic that is constantly foisted upon us.

First, the one I didn’t like. It’s not an article, exactly; it’s an interview on salon.com called “Parents: Most of What You’re Doing Is Wrong.” If you think that’s exaggeration for comic effect, it’s not. Lynn Harris (mom, writer, old friend of mine) has interviewed Po Bronson, co-author of a new book called Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children. This author’s modus operandi, it seems, is to make parents question everything they have ever been told, and grip them with a sudden panic that all along they should have been doing just the opposite.

Chief among his hypotheses is my pet peeve: the idea that we should stop praising our children so much. Love and support, daily encouragement? What a bad mommy you are. “When we’re telling kids they’re smart all the time, effort gets stigmatized,” Bronson asserts. I’m not sure what proof they have of this, and I fully admit I have not read the entire book, but it sounds like they’re just kind of making it up. This interview has lots of anecdotes that become worrisome trends in parenting– dire predictions based upon a statistic sampling of one. Well, I’ve got a statistic sampling of three at my house, and they’re part of an ongoing experiment. I tell my kids they’re smart and funny, and beautiful and loved, every single day, and it embarrasses them a little when I do it at school dropoff, but even then I still see their eyes light up with pleasure. I may read Nurtureshock and I may not, but this idea that we can love our children too well or spoil them with self-confidence just makes me roll my eyes. And I’m reading it more and more.

On the other end of the spectrum, an article on slate. com by Dr. Alan Kazdin: “Plan B: What to do when all else has failed to change your kids’ behavior.” This essay also suggests that parents might want to consider doing the opposite of what they have thought was correct, lo these many years, but in contrast, I think this advice is actually helpful. If you have a kid who won’t eat or won’t use the potty or who bites his babysitter, stop doing cartwheels to get him to do what you want, and try doing exactly nothing:

[We] direct the parents to temporarily back off almost entirely: to stop asking their child to do the desired behavior and say it’s OK not to do it at all, stop offering praise or other rewards for doing it, and mask their attitude of engaged enthusiasm or frustrated rage with an appearance of bland disinterest in whether the child does it or not. What happens next, frequently, is that within a day or two the child starts doing the behavior with no prompting from parents or anyone else.

This sounds like it just might be brilliant advice. The article further suggests that parents find opportunities to explicitly tell their child something like, “Don’t worry about this now; you will be able to do this when you get older,” a pressure-reducing antecedent that can actually speed up compliance. Why couldn’t I have read this back when I had an almost-four-year-old pooping in Pull Ups?

This isn’t to say that in all things, or even all things parenting, that slate.com is a better resource than salon.com. I usually enjoy reading them both, because I can never remember which one is which. All I’m saying is that mothers need, as a group, to reject all these feel-bad “experts” out there. If you’re going to tell me I’m doing something wrong, then give me some news I can use.

(photo from slate.com Kazdin article)

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah in NC September 23, 2009 at 8:53 pm

After reading your post, I scooted right over to read the Nurtureshock article, and had some of the same reactions you did, Amy, until they began discussing praise. I think they and you both have very valid points. You're right – we should tell our children we love them every day. We should praise them every day. But we should praise them for concrete things, not abstract. I think the authors are also absolutely on target when they point out that empty praise is not just useless, it's damaging. My husband is a 28 year teaching veteran, and he has classes filled with kids who constantly argue about the grades they earn in his class (12th grade English). All their lives they've been praised for being "smart", rather than for working hard, and they honestly believe that they deserve grades based on their capability, not their performance. I think baseless self esteem is as damaging to a child as low self esteem. What do you think?

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Amy September 23, 2009 at 10:47 pm

I guess I don't really believe that telling your children they're smart and great and you love them is, in itself, what creates lazy and entitled 12th graders. I think that's not simple cause and effect. But as I said, there are lots of people making that argument– enough to make me doubt whether I'm praising my children too much. And I just think that is an awful way for a mother to feel, that she is supposed to hold back. But I'm not so certain all these experts are wrong– at least certain enough to ignore them entirely. Hence the daily cocktail of guilt we all drink: we are doing something wrong, no matter what we do.

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Ashley Merryman September 24, 2009 at 1:08 pm

I just wanted to clarify something.

What the research suggests is that overpraising is a problem, because it isn't sincere praise. I used to tell my tutoring kids that they were really smart just because they got their homework done. That was an exaggeration, not reflective of their work. So now, if they worked hard on that homework, I say, "Wow, Honey, you worked really hard on that didn't you?" And the kid feels more rewarded, because it showed that I was actually paying attention to what he was doing.

Neither Po nor I — nor any of the researchers we've written about — have ever suggested that parents should limit their expressions of love for their children.

What the research indicates is that it can be problematic when people who substitute actual expressions of love/affections with praise, or when they tie the two concepts together (e.g. "You are so smart, and I love you so much").

This is a concern because it can send a message that our love is conditional –i.e. I love you BECAUSE you are smart. But if that's true, then the implication is that I WON'T love you if you aren't smart.

At this point, kids become very concerned with image-maintenance: they won't allow themselves to make mistakes, because to do so risks their self-image of being smart, talented, etc., and if they lose that, then they will be unloveable.

The research also cautions against combining praise for achievement with encouragement. Meaning it's fine to say, "Congratulations on your soccer win: you played your heart out." However, it would be problematic to add "and I'm sure that you'll do even better next time" because, first, it indicates that what he did then wasn't actually praiseworthy – again the praise was conditional because it was based on future performance — and there is no guarantee that he will do better next time.

Also, we never wrote that praise was ineffective; that kids didn't respond to it. Instead, we explained that it can be too effective.

Finally, our book is not a parenting manual; it's a presentation of scientific process and evidence — and we leave it up to the individual reader to decide if and how to apply the work.

That's just a fraction of what we write about, but I hope that helps.

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