Young children are constantly running to their parents to show them what they’re doing or playing with – “Mommy look! I put a hat on the baby doll!” “Daddy, see the picture I drew?” Often our instinctive response is to gush how wonderful it is or how talented they are. It’s not a terrible response – certainly better than offering a distant “oh, great” while not moving our eyes from the smartphone screen. But it also probably isn’t the best we can do either.
Praise, like love, isn’t needed unconditionally. Unconditional praise can turn children into approval junkies, always turning to you to evaluate their actions rather than learning how to decide for themselves. Exaggerated praise can achieve the same effect. This is not to say that you should be callously judgmental (“No, no, no, look how you colored outside the line here!”). Rather, the best approach is to be positive and encouraging while redirecting the evaluation back to them. This can be done simply by noticing.
What Noticing Looks Like
When a child comes to you to demonstrate her work, you can respond by simply noticing what she has done. For example, when she approaches you with her drawing, you can just note what she drew: “I see you drew a house here! With a roof on top, and a red door, and three windows!” The positivity comes in your tone – if you are excited about it, your child will pick that up; if you use a concerned or critical voice, she will feel that too. While you are conveying a positive reaction to what you are seeing, you leave the evaluation of the product to your child.
What will likely happen is that your child will reflect your energy – if your tone and body language communicate your pleasure with what you are seeing or hearing, your child might reply with an excited “Yeah!” – excited to have been noticed and to have gotten a positive reaction. Then he’ll run off to keep working at it. He will have gained a feeling of significance from just the fact that you noticed, that you cared to share in his project; he doesn’t need you to tell him whether it’s good or bad. He’ll learn to decide whether he himself likes it if you don’t impose your evaluation of it at the outset. He may in fact decide that it’s not his best house drawing ever, and he’d like to try again. This allows him to develop an inner confidence in his own ability to assess his accomplishments.
You don’t have to wait until your kid shows up with the latest product to notice her effectively. You can be proactive by simply noticing as you go through your day. When you pass through the living room and you spot her trying to spell out her name, you can notice that. “I see you’re working at writing your name!” Again, your enthusiasm is enough to convey to her that you feel positive about this; you don’t need to tack on a “You’re so smart!” or “Good job!” to emphasize it. You’ve already given her the gift of significance by noticing her and letting her know it. You’ve let her know that she matters to you – even the little things she does.
The mere act of noticing your children out loud is a great parenting tool to help them develop a sense of personal significance and connection to you. It also helps put them in the driver’s seat of deciding whether they like what they do, and ultimately, who they are, a skill that will become increasingly needed as peer relationships grow in importance over time.