“I was trained to make my mother happy. . . . [I am] addicted to attention, acclaim, validation.”
“Hate to break it to you . . .” So read the subject line of a mass email from my friend Ana. (This is way back in 2007, before everyone and their mother turned to social media to spread the good—or bad—word.) “Read and weep!” she wrote and attached an article from Parents magazine called “Hooked on Praise,” by Alfie Kohn, a ruckus-making scholar in the worlds of education, parenting, and beyond. Even though I only had a precious few minutes left to get stuff done before Jules awoke from her nap, I was curious to see what news was so bad that Ana hated to break it to me—and all the other new-parent friends she’d cc’d.
I quickly skimmed the article, hoping I’d land on just the right sentences that would tell me whatever I needed to know—it seems nothing makes a person more ADD than having a baby. Scanning, I gathered that, contrary to popular belief, our national habit of saying “Good job!” to kids is not only not helpful, but it can be manipulative and can actually turn them into “praise junkies.” Praise junkies? I thought skeptically. Really? Isn’t that overstating things a bit? I didn’t quite think “Whatever!” but I certainly wasn’t reading and weeping. Then Jules woke up, so I quickly replied to Ana with a perfunctory “Interesting! Thx for sending” and ran off to get my angel. I figured that was that.
But she wrote back.
“I know! The article really hit home for me and Greg. We both grew up desperately wanting to please our parents. I was always trying to be the person my parents wanted me to be, grasping for the answers I thought my parents wanted to hear, molding myself into whatever person would elicit a ‘Good job!’ Believe me, it’s no surprise Greg and I met at Yale! It was our parents’ wet dream. Twenty years and tons of therapy later, I realized that I’d never really asked myself What do I think? How do I feel? What do I want? Oh, the wasted years! We’re definitely going to try to be really mindful about praising Tessie. Two people-pleasers in the house is two too many.”
Whoa! I should have actually read the whole article, I thought, hitting reply.
“Amazing how parents mean well but cause damage in ways they never could have imagined—to put it mildly. Wonder what I’m doing to screw up Jules. Isn’t it inevitable? Guess we should start a therapy fund now! :) I appreciate the heads-up. I’ll definitely be laying off ‘good job.’ See you soon? xo”
Then I hit Google. “What creates a people-pleaser?” I asked the great and powerful wizard.
“Parents do!” the wizard replied, just like Alfie Kohn said they do.
I clicked on a Psychology Today article forebodingly entitled “From Parent-Pleasing to People-Pleasing: How Craving Others’ Approval Can Sabotage Healthy Self-Development,” by Dr. Leon Seltzer, who explained that “Children learn to say and do what their parents approve of either for fear of not getting the approval or worse, either a withholding of love or some kind of punishment.” Among his long list of characteristics that defined people-pleasers, Seltzer included:
Very organized; easily liked . . . friendly and gregarious; helpful and supportive; courteous and considerate; always smiling; interested in others’ welfare . . .
Ana to a T! I thought. She’s about as lovely, warm, and welcoming as a person can be. I could imagine if someone had read only those positive attributes, she might wonder How can I raise that child? Praise? Done! But unfortunately, those are only the traits people-pleasers display to their parents and later to the world. On the inside, life isn’t so rosy:
[People-pleasers are] fearful of losing approval; fearful of failure and rejection . . . ignoring personal needs and rights; feeling lonely and isolated . . . feeling undeserving, and “not good enough”; excessively concerned about satisfying others’ demands; insecure about personal abilities, skills, or knowledge; fearful of letting friends and family down; fearful of being “found out” as not being as good as they seem . . . [they suffer from] exhaustion from always trying so hard to be perfect . . . feeling unappreciated and taken for granted . . .
Whoa! I thought, feeling for Ana. That’s a lot to try to recover from. Constantly trying to be the person you think other people want you to be. Never feeling you are enough. To some degree, I could definitely relate. Like many, I suppose, as a kid I acted differently with my grandparents than I did with my teachers than I did with my friends than I did with my parents than I did with boys I had crushes on. Certainly different people bring out different parts of one’s personality, but I was more calculating than that. I acted in ways I figured would make them like me more, only sharing certain stories or spinning them in ways I thought would make them think I was a “good girl” or cool or funny or sophisticated or tough or whatever. But isn’t that normal? Is it really possible to just truly be “yourself”—whoever that is—with everyone?
I found some insight into my experience in psychologist Robin Grille’s book, Parenting for a Peaceful World. Explaining how rewards and praise can harm parent’s relationships with their children, Grille writes, “As a result of early manipulation, we grow up trying hard to please, or we learn to use our wiles to impress, in order to get the goodies—at the expense of being our natural selves. We develop a phony or false self that distorts our relationships with others.” Hmmm. I could see how constructing a version of oneself to be more liked could leave a kid (me!) feeling insecure and wondering if she would be as lovable or deserving if people knew the real her (me). As Jules wasn’t yet a year old, I assumed she was still blissfully unaware of needing to please. Isn’t she? I didn’t want her to feel she had to act a certain way to be loved, I just wanted her to know she was. As is. Always. Could praise really lead to such deep-rooted insecurity?
Praise Addicts: In Their Own Words
I did a little digging and discovered that other thinkers, in particular Carl Rogers, one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, and Hungarian pediatrician Dr. Emmi Pikler agree that praise can breed insecurity. I also got a sense of what being a praise addict can feel like, according to a few of them in their own words. Christie Pettit, a blogger who identifies herself as a “recovering praise addict”; Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed king of all media; and a recent Harvard graduate who laments that she realized she hadn’t “formed an identity beyond making people proud of me” all have spoken directly about how their lives have been adversely affected by praise.
Explaining her addiction, Pettit writes that praise addicts are “not just after pleasing others, but hearing encouragement and affirmation from others. The praise—positive words that will stroke the junkie’s fragile ego—is the coveted prize. Motivation to do even the most considerate things for other people ultimately comes from the praise that will be received in return. Most praise junkies are probably not aware that this is what drives them, but as I stop to really look at my heart, this is the sad truth.” It was heartbreaking to think of a kid trapped in a continuous state of calculation, always on the prowl for a “Good job!” to assure herself that she is “good” or smart or clever or caring enough. I got it. That’s what Alfie Kohn meant when he said kids can become “extrinsically motivated.” They don’t do things because they’re genuinely interested or curious but because they feel compelled to please their parents upon whom the quality of their life literally depends.
In Neil Strauss’s revealing Rolling Stone interview “Howard Stern: Deeply Neurotic, Desperate for Approval and Happier than Ever,” Stern directly traces his crippling dependence on praise to his early relationship with his mom, divulging, “I was trained to make my mother happy.” Some fifty years later, the affects of that early training continue to plague him. “I just can’t walk out of here and say, ‘I did a good show today and I’m very satisfied,’” Stern explains. “No, I gotta know, do you think I did a good show and are you satisfied? And that’s the neurosis and that’s the source of all problems for me. . . . The pressure I put on myself is horrible. It’s excruciating. . . . It’s desperate. . . . One person not laughing can make me insane.” And this is despite his stratospheric success, millions of devoted fans, a seemingly happy marriage, being the proud father of three children, more than a decade of psychotherapy, and a consistent transcendental meditation practice. So I wasn’t surprised when I later came across this sobering admission from an unnamed recent Harvard graduate featured in the wildly popular photography blog Humans of New York:
I’d always been an overachiever. I graduated at the top of my class in high school. . . . But when I got to Harvard, everyone around me was just as smart or smarter. My grades fell, and suddenly I was no longer exceeding expectations. All that external validation that I’d become accustomed to suddenly stopped. And I crumbled. I felt lost. I learned that I hadn’t formed an identity beyond making people proud of me. I’m still not exactly sure who I am. But I’m working on it.
While these stories were enough to make me never want to say “Good job!” again, I was still confused because for so long I’d thought of parents praising their kids as nothing short of part of the job description. We’re our kids’ support system. Their champions. If not us, who? I figured Ana, Pettit, and Stern were extreme cases. Surely, I thought, you can be encouraging and supportive without creating an insecure praise addict. Can’t you? Everything in moderation, right?
Not All “Good Job!”s Are Created Equal
Until I could get a handle on what was okay to praise or how to do it without making a mess of Jules, I decided I’d just lay off “Good job!” for a while. Better safe than sorry. What I didn’t realize however, was that this new focus on praise had apparently planted some kind of homing-device inside of me, because it seemed that wherever I went, if someone said “Good job!” I heard it. Which means I heard it everywhere and often. Alas, not all “Good job!”s are created equal. Sometimes it was said as if a child had literally cured cancer and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination was imminent, even though all he’d done was taken his shoes off before getting into the sandbox.
“Good job, buddy! Thatta boy!”
Or jumped off the swing.
“Good job! Way to go!” Applause, applause, applause.
Or finished a meal.
“Good job! What a good eater you are!”
At the other end of the spectrum, however, some “Good job!”s sounded so lifeless—probably because the good jobber was mid-text or maybe because saying it had become so rote.
In between, however, were some low-key, yet supportive “Good job!”s that seemed to be saying, I care and think you’re great. Keep on rocking it. Like when a six-year-old boy said, “Hey, Dad, check this out!” and then he swung across the monkey bars. Inevitably, his dad called out, “Good job, buddy!” He didn’t overdo it. He didn’t under do it. I mean, what else was he supposed to say? That’s not manipulative, is it? I wondered. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Other times, however, I swear if I was blind I would’ve thought people were training their dogs instead of “complimenting” their kids. “Stay seated. . . . Good job!” or “Wait your turn! . . . Good job!” and “Good standing in line!” Some folks would even clap.
Why, I wondered, are we all good-jobbing everything all the time? Our incessant, albeit well-meaning, praise started to seem so intrusive. It felt kind of Big Brother-ish—no action, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, was immune from our judgment. I wondered if kids who have become so used to receiving a constant stream of praise are more likely to seek it out when their efforts aren’t automatically acknowledged with fanfare:
“Watch this, Mom!”
“Now watch this!”
“That’s great, honey!”
“What about this?”
Because if it isn’t praised, does it count? Is it satisfying?
However, on the other hand, I imagine some continually praised kids might feel relieved to be “off the clock.” Phew, they’re gone. Finally I can just play without having to do a good job of it all the time.
Praise at Your Own Risk
While praising kids has been steadily gaining momentum over the last several decades, “Good job!” is now the signature phrase of the twenty-first-century American parent, teacher, coach, doctor, nanny, babysitter—i.e., any person who comes in contact with a child. Along the way, though, there have been many detractors waving their arms and yelling, “CAUTION: Danger Ahead!” One early alarm sounder was the Hungarian pediatrician Dr. Emmi Pikler, who, back in the 1930s, conducted extensive research on the natural gross motor development of infants. In her audaciously titled book What Can Your Baby Do Already?—a pointed comment on parents’ unhealthy obsession with their children’s rate of development—Dr. Pikler cautioned, “We hinder the child when we acknowledge certain accomplishments in an exaggerated way. . . . The effect is incalculable. As a result, the child will not . . . try out what gives him pleasure, but that which he assumes will please adults.”
Celebrating an accomplishment with a child, Dr. Pikler believed, is quite different from trying to push a baby toward mastering a new milestone like standing or walking using praise as a reward—“You can do it! Come on! . . . Good job!” Because when we do try to encourage our children’s development by applauding their efforts to reach certain milestones, we send the message that where they are—say, as a crawler—isn’t good enough for us. There’s also a risk that children may actually end up weaker and less coordinated because they are trying to rush their progress to please us instead of listening to the wisdom of their bodies. Thus our “encouragement” can actually make children more insecure—literally and figuratively. Mom and Dad want me to walk. That will make them happy with me! Oh gosh, why does my body still want to crawl sometimes? Got. To. Stand. Up.
For Dr. Pikler, honoring a child’s initiative and unique rate and way of developing was essential to healthy growth—both physically and psychologically. In an effort to reassure anxious parents, she explained, “An infant’s own movements and the development of these movements and every detail of this development are a constant source of joy to him. If one does not interfere, an infant will learn to turn, roll, creep on the belly, go on all fours, stand, sit, and walk with no trouble.” It is our meddling—which often comes in the form of well-meaning encouragement and praise—that’s not only not helpful to their development but teaches that we value product over process.
Looking at the world through Pikler-colored glasses, I began noticing things I’d never thought to pay attention to before and was surprised by just how subtle and easy-to-miss the seeds of creating a people-pleaser could be. For instance, I was over at my friends Nick and Tanya’s trying to help them decide on a paint color for their living room when, all of a sudden, they literally went “Good job!” crazy over their nine-month-old daughter, Lola.
“Good job, Lola!” applauded Tanya, beaming. “Good job!”
“Good job!” Nick concurred. “That’s my girl!”
Lola looked up from gumming a red rubber ball and smiled a big smile.
What just happened? I couldn’t help but wonder. One minute Lola was happily playing while we debated whether Moonlight Gray would be too dark, and now she was ten feet away in the dining room playing with a ball. Obviously I’d missed something pretty spectacular. My face must’ve betrayed my confusion because Tanya explained, “That was only Lola’s second time crawling up a step! Wasn’t it, Lola? Good job, baby girl!”
“Oh, wow! Great,” I said as I thought Hmmmm.
Of course, I could relate to their excitement. It is amazing to watch your child go from a weak and helpless newborn to a coordinated kid on the go (who climbs stairs!) in such a short time. Nature is truly astonishing. But considering that as a normally growing and developing Homo sapiens, Lola literally couldn’t not learn to crawl up the step, I wondered how she might process getting praised for something inevitable? Certainly no lioness is applauding when her cubs start to walk. It’s just as it is. Praising your child for crawling up a stair is just a few steps away from praising a child for breathing. That’s my girl! Inhale in and exhale out! Good job! I could see how a child might become reticent to try something she isn’t naturally good at for fear of not getting the praise she’s come to expect for things that come naturally. The irony! Or perhaps, as Dr. Pikler suggested, a child will continue to do whatever won the accolades and attention in the first place, hoping for more. Sadly, of course, she’ll eventually learn that the “accomplishment” has become old news and is no longer praiseworthy, and that she’ll need to up her game if she wants more attention. Maybe Mom and Dad will like this? No? Hmmm, let me try this. . . .
The Power of Observation
None of this is to say that children aren’t proud of their accomplishments—they may well be. And we can enjoy and support their feeling of pride. But they also may not be, and instead just absorb their new abilities as part of the natural flow of life. After all, babies are in a near constant state of learning and acquiring skills—it’s just that some of those skills are more dramatic and visible than others. Dr. Pikler believed the key to being a supportive parent is observation. Too often, before children even have a chance to register how they feel about their big moment, we’re telling them how we feel about it or how we think they should feel about it. Maybe Lola was excited that her newfound ability had allowed her to explore the next room or enabled her to get that ball she’d been eyeing! In that case, instead of a rote “good job,” parents can reflect their child’s excitement:
“I see! You can climb steps now!”
Or “You got your ball!”
Silence Is Golden
Or, if Lola seems unfazed by her new ability and was just engrossed in her play, then there’s really no need to say anything at all. If she isn’t excited about it, then her parents’ praise can seem random, which may send the message that they’re perpetually on the lookout for things she does that are praiseworthy. Of course, if we’re excited (and watching our children master new things is exciting—even mind-blowing!), we can always share our feelings with friends and partners: “Can you believe it? She’s already climbing steps. It happened so fast!”
Happily, I’ve found Dr. Pikler’s appeal to parents to allow their children to develop without pressure or fanfare is alive and well in the widely read parenting blog of Janet Lansbury, a RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) expert. Lansbury was a student of Dr. Pikler’s protégé, the late Magda Gerber, founding director of RIE. She shared on Facebook a story from a mom who managed to swallow her impulse to “Good job!” her daughter, thus allowing her to bask in her own moment of glory.
Tonight it was time for bed and I was carrying my baby while my 2yo followed along. We got to the baby gate and I asked my toddler if she would like me to pick her up or if she would like to try to get over the gate on her own. (Something she’s been working on but hasn’t quite been able to do.) She said, “Yes, Emmy try it herself.” And then she got over and was so excited! She threw her arms up and said “Emmy tried and tried and didn’t do it, but now Emmy did it by herself!” I responded, “You did it! And you seem to be very proud of yourself!” I love how the excitement came from HER accomplishment. SHE had worked on something and mastered it on her own, and that was enough for her. She didn’t need MY praise.
“Sweetheart! You have done it. How exciting. I’m so happy for you.” That’s celebrating with.
Prizing Instead of Praising
Another alarm-sounder was Carl Rogers, who, as I mentioned, was one of the twentieth century’s most influential psychologists, and someone I’ve come to think of as the granddaddy of the notion that praise can derail a life. A founder of the humanistic approach to psychology in the 1950s, Rogers developed the paradigm-shifting theory of “unconditional positive regard,” which holds that essential to a child’s healthy development is feeling that she’s unconditionally loved by her parents. That is to say, in order for a child to be on the path to reaching her innate potential, she needs parents who do not withdraw their love just because she acts in ways they don’t approve of or makes a mistake. I like David G. Myers’s description of unconditional positive regard from the textbook Psychology:
This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our failings. It is a profound relief to drop our pretenses, confess our worst feelings, and discover that we are still accepted. In a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship, we are free to be spontaneous without fearing the loss of others’ esteem.
Rogers called this attitude of valuing our children for who they are “prizing” them, which is so different from praising them for what they do. A child who feels prized will develop the confidence and freedom to go out on a limb and experiment, unafraid that she is in any way diminished by challenges, mistakes, or setbacks. On the other hand, if the love and affirmation a child receives is conditional, then she starts to feel good about herself only when she performs or acts in ways that make her parents happy or proud, rather than when she does something that brings her personal joy.
Indeed, before my very eyes, I witnessed a four-year-old girl doing something just to make her mother happy one drizzly afternoon when I was picking Jules up from preschool—a veritable hotbed of “Good jobs!” Paula, a fellow mom who must’ve been in a hurry, tried to get her daughter, Georgia, to put on her raincoat.
“Here you go, honey,” Paula said holding up her jacket.
Georgia frowned and shook her head.
“Come on, sweetheart, we’ve got to go!” Paula pleaded.
Georgia shook her head again and firmly said, “No!”
Some parents call this being “obstinate.” Others call it being “uncooperative,” or even “misbehaving.” At this point, I’d come to see it as a child who knows what she wants and how she feels and is simply trying to communicate it.
So Paula switched tactics.
“I know you can do it, sweetheart. First this arm . . .” she said, touching Georgia’s right arm and flashing a big smile.
And in Georgia’s right arm went.
“Good job!” her mom exclaimed, happy finally to be moving in the right direction.
Georgia smiled back.
“Now your other one!” she instructed with equal enthusiasm and warmth.
In her left arm went.
“Good job, honey! And now let’s zip you up! Good job! Okay! We’re ready to go!” Paula said, tapping Georgia’s nose.
Three “Good job!”s over the course of the single act of putting on a coat. Wow! I thought.
What Is RIE?
Resources for Infant Educarers, more commonly known as RIE (pronounced “rye”), is a philosophy and methodology of raising children with respect. The organization was founded in the 1970s by the late Magda Gerber, largely based on the work of her mentor, the Hungarian pediatrician Dr. Emmi Pikler. Gerber coined the term “educarer” to emphasize the idea that the way we care for our children is an essential part of their education. My husband, John, and I started taking a weekly parent-infant class with Jules when she was just three months old and continued for two years. In each class, for the first half hour the children play and the parents observe. Then we talk about our observations and address any questions we may have. Here are some of the tenets from the RIE philosophy that really helped me:
- Tell your child what you are going to do before you do it—“I’m going to pick you up now. Are you ready?” This allows babies to relax because they know you’re not going to just move their bodies without fair warning.
- Use caregiving times—e.g., dressing, changing, feeding, and bathing—to slow down and really connect, inviting your child to participate in the process.
- From the earliest age, give your baby plenty of uninterrupted time to explore and play in their own way.
- While car seats are necessary and strollers are helpful to a point, putting a baby into play centers, exersaucers, walkers, swings, and bouncy seats restricts their freedom to move and develop naturally.
- Passive toys (i.e., no bells and whistles) make active babies. Simple toys that can be used in a variety of ways encourage a child’s imagination, creativity, attention span, and competence.
- Don’t try to rush your child’s development (i.e., don’t try to help your child roll over, sit up, or walk). They will do it on their own when they have gained the necessary strength and coordination.
- If your child’s days are consistent and predictable, she’ll start to anticipate what will come next, which creates a great sense of security.
- Reflecting or acknowledging achievements is more helpful than praising.
- Don’t talk about your child in the third person in front of them.
- Don’t ask your child to perform (“Show Grandma how you can clap your hands!”) or label them (shy or rude, or what have you), because it only gives them, as Gerber once said, a script to live up to.
The Gift of Why
Only months earlier, this interaction wouldn’t have even registered, but now it made me gulp. Georgia clearly hadn’t wanted to put on her coat, and instead of asking her why she didn’t want to, Paula good-jobbed her into it, not giving Georgia’s reluctance any credence. After all, it’s not like Paula was complimenting Georgia on her ability to put her arm through a sleeve—she’d likely mastered that a couple of years earlier. Rather, she was essentially praising Georgia for being “cooperative” (a kissing cousin to “obedient”) her maternal warmth and approval given upon the condition that her request was fulfilled.
Now, I don’t doubt that Paula had sound reasons for wanting Georgia to wear the raincoat. Maybe she thought it was about to start pouring. Maybe they were going to the supermarket, where she knew Georgia would be freezing if she were damp. We’ve all had our valid reasons for wanting our kids to comply with our requests. But what gave me pause was that Paula didn’t take that extra few seconds to explain to her daughter why it was important that she put the coat on. Nor did she ask Georgia why she didn’t want to put it on in the first place. Instead, likely in the interest of time, she sweet-talked Georgia into doing something she clearly hadn’t wanted to do—thus leveraging her coveted parental approval.
I can imagine for Georgia’s part that she, too, had a valid reason for not wanting to wear the raincoat. Maybe she didn’t want to put it on because she was hot from running around so much at school. Maybe she knew from experience how restricting the stiff raincoat would feel when she was strapped into her car seat. Or, perhaps Georgia didn’t want to wear the coat because she thought the rain was magical and loved how it felt when it lightly hit her skin. I don’t know. But neither did Paula. The problem is that Georgia acquiesced not because she understood why it was important that she wear the coat, but seemingly to please her mom. Even if Georgia felt hot and bulky in it, she probably figured—subconsciously, of course—that it was a small price to pay for Mom being happy with her.
This may seem like a ridiculously minor situation of little consequence. I imagine many would admire Paula’s warmth and patience. After all, she didn’t lose her cool or resort to threats—and her need to get to the next thing in her day matters, too. While I don’t want to make mountains out of molehills, the truth is that many molehills a mountain make. That’s the way brain wiring works. A child’s experience, when coupled again and again with like experiences, impacts her understanding of herself and her place in the world. And so it follows that depending on how we respond to our children, they will come to either value their own point of view or they won’t. North Dakota State professor and family science specialist Sean Brotherson explains how this works in his article “Understanding Brain Development in Young Children”:
As the synapses in a child’s brain are strengthened through repeated experiences, connections and pathways are formed that structure the way a child learns. If a pathway is not used, it’s eliminated based on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle.
Alas, seeing that it took my super smart friend Ana years of therapy just to be able to ask herself What do I think? What do I feel? it seems reasonable to deduce that the belief that her feelings were important literally didn’t get wired into her brain when she was a child. And my guess is that it’s because her parents never really thought about considering her perspective, but instead were intent on teaching her what they felt was important. Getting Ana to go along with their program—i.e., to be a good girl—was vital. And so their beliefs became hers. We’re all born with a perspective, but if it’s not valued, we can lose it. (We can find it again—often with the help of a therapist—but it’s a search that requires a lot of fortitude.)
And so it stands that the more we value our children’s perspective—that is, the more we ask them why they do or don’t want to do something, and give their response genuine consideration—the stronger their belief will be that their thoughts, feelings, and experiences are important. However, if, on the other hand, we want children who follow our directions regardless of their personal circumstances, then giving conditional positive regard will help us achieve that goal. What we can’t have, however, is our cake and to eat it too—unquestioning, compliant children who become self-assured adults. This reality was perfectly captured in an unattributed cartoon I came across of a mother saying to her daughter, “Honey, when you grow up, I want you to be assertive, independent, and strong-willed. But while you’re a kid, I want you to be passive, pliable, and obedient.” It just doesn’t work that way. Challenging our parents is practice for the future. And it’s up to us to meet our children’s challenge to our “authority” with curiosity as to where they’re coming from. Essentially what happened with Paula’s sweet-talking Georgia into putting on the coat she didn’t want to wear was that Paula—who is actually one of the biggest feminists I know—not only denied her daughter her voice but sent the message that at best her experience wasn’t important and at worst it was wrong or bad. Not a big deal if it’s only one instance, but I could see how over time this is how a child becomes a people-pleaser. It’s fine! I can live with the discomfort as long as everyone else is happy. Mother knows best. It’s incumbent upon us as parents to value our children’s point of view. To prize them. Because it is only then, when their feelings and needs are on the table, that parents and kids can work together to find solutions that work for everyone.
For instance, if Paula understood that the raincoat felt too stiff, I can imagine them deciding that Georgia would wear the coat to the car but then could take it off before getting in. Or maybe once Paula understood how much Georgia loved the feeling of the rain on her skin (which is common for kids here in drought-ravaged southern California), she might realize it’s only a little water and that the coat isn’t as important as she thought.
Believe me, I get that it’s often inconvenient to pause and try to figure out why our children are resisting us. We have things to do! Places to go! But when we do take the time, we’re telling our children that how they feel and think is important—which is especially critical when it’s a matter related to their own bodies. We want them to trust their instincts. But alas, like many of us, Paula used praise to reward Georgia for “cooperating,” and as a result Georgia became more oriented to her mom’s approval than to an experience of enjoying the magic of the rain or avoiding the discomfort of the jacket. It’s exactly as the psychologist and author Jay Earley describes: “Often, parents will simply tell kids what to do and never encourage them to assert themselves. When the kids obey, the parents give them conditional love. Once established, such behaviors become self-reinforcing, which makes them difficult to uproot. They get rewarded by bosses, co-workers, and friends just as they do by parents, prompting pleasers to assume doormat postures over and over again in hopes of receiving more kudos.” If Ana, Christie Pettit, or Howard Stern are any indication, “difficult to uproot” is a serious understatement.
I totally got how it can happen that a child who wants to be a filmmaker might grow up to be the doctor of his parents’ dreams—burying his or her own innate interest, talents, and passions for the unmatched reassurance of his parents’ approval. It’s a phenomenon with which Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, is all too familiar. The author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success, Lythcott-Haims discloses, “I heard plenty of stories from college students who believed they had to study science (or medicine, or engineering), just as they’d had to play piano, and do community service for Africa, and, and, and. I talked with kids completely uninterested in the items on their own résumés. Some shrugged off any right to be bothered by their own lack of interest in what they were working on, saying, ‘My parents know what’s best for me.’”
This is precisely what I want to avoid, because I know there is simply no way for me to know what the best path is for Jules and Hudson. I’m not them, and crystal balls aren’t real. Certainly I can share my concerns and thoughts, and they theirs. And then we can weigh them together.
If Not “Good Job!” Then What?
The good news is that not all praise is manipulative. Sometimes we “Good job!” our kids to let them know we’re rooting for them, we think they nailed it, or that we’re impressed or proud. But the more I thought about it, the more crazy—or maybe just lazy— it seemed that we use the same two, über-generic, all-purpose words to send such a variety of messages. So, if not “Good job!” then what? As a mother of two young children, I’ve had many, many occasions to contemplate this question and experiment with how I respond when my kids say, “Watch this!” One such occasion proved particularly pivotal to my thinking.
Describe What You See
Jules’s brother Hudson was three when he went through a love affair with tape—Scotch tape, packing tape, colored tapes—and he essentially hyperventilated at the sight of caution tape. And just in case he was overcome with the desire to tape things together—furniture, blocks, action figures, cars, what have you—he often kept a pair of children’s scissors tucked into his Pull-Ups.
“Maw-om!” he called out one day.
“Come!” he said meaning, I’m on a roll here, and you’re gonna love it. Check this out!
Now upon seeing his complex creation of various colored tapes zigzagging across the house, I could certainly have said, “Wow, Hudson! This is amazing! Good job, honey. Good job!” And likely he would have smiled with pride and then returned to his work. I genuinely did find it amazing, and clearly he had been working really hard. He had indeed done a good job in creating whatever it was he’d created. But I stopped myself. This time, instead of telling him how great it was, I slowed down and described what I was looking at.
“Hudson! This is so elaborate. I see you’ve wound the caution tape all the way from the legs of the dresser in your bedroom, in and out through the banister along the staircase . . . down into the living room, under the sofa, around the coffee table and taped it onto the bookshelf! This is your longest construction ever! What a lot of work.”
Describing what I was looking at, I found I actually became more aware of what I was seeing. Instead of just doing a perfunctory, drive-by “Good job!” I was more present. (And as an extra bonus, I was using words like “elaborate” and “banister” and “attached” that could certainly help develop his vocabulary a lot more than “good job” ever would.) I also found myself genuinely intrigued by his “setup” (as he called it), so I asked about it.
Can You Tell Me About It?
“I’m interested in all of these little strips of orange tape that you cut and attached to the black tape. Can you tell me about them?”
It’s a question that has turned out to be a gift that keeps on giving.
“Wait!” Hudson said. “First I’ve got to hide this guy in this bucket.” Then he turned a plastic pail over an action figure and started drumming on it as he explained, “There are a lot of rabbits. Rabbits are here. And here. And here. And they all climb across the caution tape, to the black tape, hanging by their hands and they climb and climb to this rope and then they all climb down into the hole. There’s only one hole for all the rabbits. And it’s small.”
“It must be crowded down there. What are all the rabbits doing in the hole?”
“They’re trying to work it out,” he explained.
“I see. So many rabbits in one place—I bet that’s challenging. How is it going for them?”
“Good. They’re working it out.”
“And what about this area? With these blocks and magnet tiles?”
“Those aren’t blocks, Maw-om!” he said, unable to hide his contempt, as his drumming came to an abrupt halt. “Those are buildings. And they’re all taped together because this is all water and they’ll float away if they’re not together. There’s a flood.”
Wow, I thought. Wow.
Hudson’s explanations of his creation were infinitely more interesting and illuminating than my telling him how “good” I thought what he had made was. This time I gave him what he really craved: a mom who genuinely was interested in his work. As Carl Rogers explained, “If you value someone, you listen. You pay attention. You aim to understand. You give time.” Had I thrown out a pat “Good job!” I would have reduced all of his intricate work to two words that did little more than cast my judgment of his creation. If we take the time to learn about them, kids’ creations can be a fascinating window into their thoughts and feelings. In this case, Hudson seemed to be working through problems with lots of other rabbits (who I suspected were stand-ins for kids at preschool) and finding solutions to challenges. “Good job” wouldn’t have begun to address the complexity of what he created, and most sadly, it would have ended a really interesting conversation before it began.