it’s counterintuitive, i know

February 25, 2010 at 10:12 pm 8 comments

If I were to break down our parenting into categories, I would say that %70 is spent offering empathy in some form or another, %20 is spent providing information (detailed explanations for how things work and why we are asking the kids to do what we are asking), and %10 on miscellaneous things like negotiating peace, brainstorming solutions, and a few executive decisions. When I look at the numbers it seems empathy takes up an enormous amount of our parenting time, and when I look a little deeper I realize it is, in part,  because we are using empathy to supplant praise.

Praise, along with it’s counterpart, punishment, is probably the most common parenting strategy in our culture. Chore charts, time-outs, stickers, allowance, consequences, etc. I know this is how I was raised, how most of us were raised. When I met Nathan and began to help parent Bella and Xi, we kept scratching our heads over this strategy. One of our rules was: when Bella hit, she got a time-out. So when she did hit, (time-outs did not deter the hitting), she immediately felt very upset, not by the fact that she had hurt someone but by how she was going to be affected. She was, quite literally, traumatized by the separation. This bothered us. Not only were time-outs not preventing the behavior, but we felt they were also causing our relationship with her to suffer, as well as raising our stress levels to uncomfortable heights. We decided the strategy wasn’t working.

The book we looked to for help with this was Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. Kohn makes the case that not only is praise and punishment not good for our kids, but it also backfires by taking away all of their own built-in motivation in any activity, wether it is swimming, clearing the table, spelling, or basketball. There’s a lot more, but this information was all we needed to start down a different path, one that felt so much better.

Abandoning praise and punishment is how we got to %70 empathy. But praise, in particular, is not easy to shake. To start I find it helpful to identify what you are trying to achieve by using praise.

If you use praise because you want your child to know that you love her and to know that you are noticing her achievements, switching to simple observations will do just that. Observation is empathy at it’s finest, simply seeing who your child is.

Some examples:

“I see you!”

“You climbed all the way up there!”

“I see you walking all by yourself. You seem pretty happy about that!”

“I saw you stack those toys up. Yeah. Then they fell down.”

It feels silly at first, but all most children want is for you to see them and be with them. They aren’t wondering if you deem their actions “good” (Good walking! Good sharing! Good jumping!).

What is important when observing, is to match your observations to their reactions. Let your face mirror theirs. If they are excited about walking all by themselves, then go ahead and get excited. If they are disappointed, then let them know you see that too. (“Oh. You didn’t want those blocks to fall”, instead of, “It’s okay! You built that tower really high. Good job! Good building!”)

Asking her questions is a great way to let her know you see what she is doing without forcing an opinion on her.

“You are wiping your hands. How do you like that? Do you like it when your hands are clean?”

“How is that for you?”

“Do you like that?”

“Is that fun?”

“Is that okay with you?”

If you are using praise in order to get your child to do something, a point to consider is that although praise may work well in the short term, it is also the best way to get them to forget what it is they want/enjoy/need in life, to eventually stop doing those things they were praised into doing, and to lose their close connection with you. (Please, don’t take my word for it – read the book.)

Instead of looking for substitute words to say, it might be more effective to stop thinking in this way entirely. Kids are not here to be controlled, to perform on command, or to follow orders without thinking. Or, at least, this isn’t the kind of human I want to raise. Children have a natural care for others, they automatically want to help the people they love. By creating a solid foundation, with empathy as the main tool, your child will listen and care for you and your ideas automatically. You build the foundation by supporting them through all of their struggles and triumphs with respect and empathy.

An example:

“You’re really sad. You don’t want to get in the car. You want more time at the park. You’re not ready to go.”

Maybe there is a little more back and forth as well:

“How much more time do you need here? Are you willing to go after you go down the slide three more times?”

This works if it is not a rote response, but truly feeling what the scenario might be like for them. Often this is enough to get the kid to the car. It certainly requires a lot of patience from the parent as the response is almost never instantaneous. Indeed, a simplified schedule is helpful. You might not want to squeeze a trip to the park into an already packed day, as this will not afford you the time necessary for a fully empathic response if the child doesn’t want to leave. Time is not always saved by empathy but the relationship is, not only saved but enriched.

Then, when children feel heard and understood, they are much more willing to hear and understand what you are feeling. (Or anyone else for that matter.)

The same example continued:

“I know you aren’t ready to leave the park yet. You were hoping to stay here a lot longer. But I am ready to leave. I’m having a hard time here at the park. I’m super hungry and also nervous about being late to meet our friends.”

Empathy, followed by information. No praise, no punishment. It might look or sound crazy, but an exchange like this works for us every time.


Entry filed under: empathy, parenting principles. Tags: , , , .

wish you were here but really wish i was there oh yeah, and…

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amy  |  February 26, 2010 at 6:18 am

    Hey Natalie–great post. I am actually reading Alfie Kohn’s book right now. Even though I see so much value in his philosophy, I find that it is so difficult for me to fully embrace letting go of praise and punishment. Especially praise…I try to do more of the “I see you” but my automatic or conditioned response tends to be “good job!”. I’m working on it.

    Have you ever been at a park or public place and listened to all the praise the parents are doing? If you really focus on it for a few minutes, it starts to sound so over-the-top! “Wow, Billy, you are the best climber in the world! I can’t believe you made it all the way to the top of the slide! You are amazing!” etc. etc.

    • 2. nataliechristensen  |  February 28, 2010 at 12:00 pm

      Hi Amy,
      Yes a trip to the park is a true learning experience. The over the top praise and also the meaningless praise – good walking! good sliding!, is crazy. If you are sensitive to it at all the park can be difficult.
      Also, “good job” is so ingrained that it’s REALLY hard to stop using it. Remember to take it easy on yourself.

  • 3. Angela  |  February 26, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    great post, so timely, had a park day today with the kiddos! would love to know more how you transitioned from conventional praise and punishment to 70% empathy with your older kids. sometimes i feel it works so well with my youngest, but my older two may have had too much of my conditioned responses when they were little. any thoughts on this? and what about when they hear praise constantly from outside sources (coaches, etc.), how do you help them balance that?

    • 4. nataliechristensen  |  February 28, 2010 at 11:56 am

      I’m working on a post about our transition to empathy, and also looking at the praise our kids come across in the outside world from people who are trying to encourage them. coming soon!

  • 5. Helen  |  March 1, 2010 at 5:43 am

    Help me! My son is nearly one and has started to really dislike lying down to have his nappy changed. I have tried to make it more interesting and more comfortable for him but I’ve run out of creativity and my mother’s advice is to tell him he just has to lie back until mummy’s finished and then hold him down. I’m trying so hard to work out what it could be that he doesn’t like about it but I’ve hit a bit of a wall

    • 6. nataliechristensen  |  March 2, 2010 at 12:00 am

      Hi Helen,
      I’m working on a post that looks at this issue as I’m sure you are not the only one butting your head against a wall like this. It should be up soon. Thanks for reading!

  • 7. Bill  |  March 1, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    dealing/empathizing with those praising/rewarding/punishing

    We just got off a two-hour flight and we were sharing an elevator ride down to the baggage claim with another family. The other Mom smiles benevolantly at us and asks “Do you have a good traveler? I didn’t hear a peep out of him!” Our son looks back at her with a neutral expression and she asks “Uh oh, there’s some scowling…” My son sees me and grins, much to her relief.

    I found myself repressing the urge to let her know that perhaps he didn’t like being evaluated, and by a stranger at that. Usually I just sort of make a grim tight-lipped smile at these sort of encounters. II don’t know how to respond to a stranger feeling entitled to talk to (or worse, about) my child in a manner in which my wife and I are struggling exactly not to talk.

    Any thoughts / guidance here from more experienced unconditionally-aspiring parents?

    • 8. nataliechristensen  |  March 1, 2010 at 11:54 pm

      Hi Bill,
      The latest post looks at that outside world that loves to throw appraisal at our kids. Take a look!


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