Many of us struggle with giving and receiving compliments. Maybe we did not receive positive messages during our upbringing so it feels unfamiliar to hear positive appreciations from others. I hear positive praise being talked about by many parenting classes as a technique to get children to do what they need to do.
In general, the idea of using a technique or a strategy with or on a child makes me really uncomfortable. It feels mechanical and manipulative. It misses the importance of prioritizing connection at the level of personhood and focuses on behavioral outcomes.
So often in therapy, I hear parents trying to give feedback to their child or to their partners in a way that uses something positive immediately followed by the punch of something of which they disapprove. They might have learned from a book or a parenting class to use positive praise as a way of giving feedback. Here’s an example:
“Hey mom. I finished all my homework today!”
“That’s good honey, but I hope it can last.”
I put the ‘but’ in there to illustrate the point. Sometimes it’s a silent “but”.
Here’s what happens: the “but” erases the first part of the sentence so the person is left with the lingering anxiety and pessimism of the second part of the sentence.
We need to be able to give realistic feedback in order to teach and grow as parents and as children.
In the above example, when the child says “I finished all my homework today!” , one might wonder what it is the child is looking for.
Recognition, validation, approval, connection, reparation.
It could be any number of things. Rather than using this as an opportunity to teach or to direct, it might be more helpful to pay attention to where the child is coming from first and what it is they are hoping to receive.
This means that the parent needs to set aside their agenda, their anxieties for the moment and be fully present with their child.
Now it would be easy to suggest telling your child, “Great job! I’m so proud of you.” Be Positive! And let that be the end of it.
I don’t want to encourage a technique here. I think people are too complicated to be able to offer singular solutions that are meant to cover infinite possibilities.
Instead, a good place would be to reach and make contact with the child. Face your child with your body and make eye contact from a place of your own groundedness. Use the internal sense from your body and let your intuition grasp all of what your child brings to you in that moment in time. Focus on just listening and comprehending. Hold your goals beside you. No need to abandon them just ask them to wait patiently.
You might feel that your child needs to hear something positive from you because it’s been a bit tough week with homework. “Great job. I can see how much effort you put into your work. I feel good seeing you try your best.”
You could ask your child how it was for them to hear your comments. In this way, you are helping them chew and digest the experience with you. They are asking for something and you have given them something and now you are helping them process and grow through this experience.
To go even further, you might ask the child how they feel about what they have done. This is teaching them to internalize the process of self-validation. This way they don’t need you to do it for them all the time -this is unrealistic anyhow.
Beware of the “But...” Trap. Take a DEEP breath and exhale your expectations and agenda for the time being and be fully present with your loved one (s).
This is not a technique. It’s just a way of clearing a space so we can be present with each other.
Finally, you can do this with you, but I’ll save that for another article;)