Thursday, November 5, 2009

Praise: Not in my Parenting Toolbox

originally posted at Reepicheep's Coracle

After some discussion of Jenn's excellent post "On Children, Parents, and the Use of Force," I thought I would share some of my thinking about praise, in general, and especially as a parenting tool.

I think that the word "praise" is confusing because we use it to mean many things. We use it to mean a compliment, an acknowledgment of someone's achievement, an expression of our emotions about what a person has done, and a way of trying to exert control over someone's behavior in the future.

Here are a few examples:

compliment or acknowledgment of an acheivement: "Wow, you look great in that color!" "This was top quality work and a pleasure to read." "Livy, you really handled that argument with Morgan well." "Jenn, your last blog post was phenomenal!"

an expression of our own emotions: "I cannot believe you just rode your bike up and down the street completely by yourself on your first try!! Holy cow!!!" "Wow, you look amazingly beautiful, and I cannot believe I get to be the one to take you out." "Yaron Brook, you astonish me with your knowledge of both finance and Objectivism. I want to come to your lectures every day!"

a way of controlling behavior: My grandmother complimenting my looks only when I am wearing make-up to try to get me to wear it more often. A parent says, "What a good boy you are!" when the child behaves the way the parent wants.

This last category is harder to give examples for because it is largely a matter of motivation. The same phrase could be used as a compliment or as manipulation, depending on the context, the tone, etc. The point of the praise in the last category is to manipulate, to increase the likelihood of the behavior in the future. It's exactly the same as petting the dog and telling him what a good boy he is when he sits; you hope this will make him sit more often in the future.

The reason I have a problem with using praise to control future behavior on human beings is that it replaces their reason with yours - second-handedness, basically. If my grandmother wants me to wear makeup, instead of tricking me into it through behaviorist techniques, she should just present the case for why I should wear makeup and let me make a rational decision about whether it is in my best interest. Instead, she wants me to do it in order to garner more praise in the future. She wants me to associate makeup wearing with her approval, instead of associating it with its consequences in my life (makes me prettier, but takes up a lot of time).

This tactic works the same way on a child. When a parent praises a child in order to "positively reinforce" a good behavior, the parent is replacing the real life value of good behavior with his approval. The child might behave better in the future (just as the dog will), but he will do it for a second-handed motivation (the parent's approval) instead of because of the benefit to himself.

I think, though, that it is even worse to do this kind of manipulative praise to a child than another adult because of the child's natural desire for the parent's approval. Where an adult will just think (as I do about the makeup situation, though I don't say it) "Wow, it is really annoying when she does that. How condescending. Mind your own business, Grandma," a child is much more likely to bow to a parent's wishes because of that powerful love and admiration he has for his parents, even if his mind disagrees with what the parent is saying. When the child squashes his own feelings and wants to do something he thinks the parent will approve of, he gets his first lesson in how to be like Peter Keating. Of course, it takes many lessons and much evasion to become a Peter Keating, but I don't want to give any of those kinds of lessons if I can help it.

So how do we avoid using that kind of praise on our children without becoming distant and foregoing the good kind of praise? I think the first step is to be sincere with our children. When we are genuinely excited about an accomplishment or feel like complimenting, we should do it. When we want to correct their behavior or encourage good behavior in the future, we should be equally sincere about that. There is nothing wrong with "You handled that argument with your sister very kindly. I would like you to use those kind of tactics when you guys argue in the future because our house is so much more peaceful when you two work things out that way. I think it is in your best interest to kindly work out your problems, so that you guys can play together and not be fighting." Now, they can use their minds to reason about what you said. They may not agree, but they know what you think and your parenting is visible to them, instead of being hidden and playing on their subconscious emotions and drive for your approval. Your reasonable explanation has shifted the focus from the fact that it is what YOU want to the fact that it is what is in the child's best interest.

But to some degree, I do believe in parental detachment. I don't think we should be quite so up in our children's business as is the norm in our culture. I think it is important to see your children as other human beings, just as you do the adults you are close to. Their achievements belong to them, not to you. The pride and the excitement and the joy of their victories belong to them, not to you. You can share in them, just as you would with a partner or with a friend, but too often, I think parents live through their children instead of with them. They want their child to succeed, not for the child's benefit, but for their own. When we care more about the child's sports teams or reading ability or social success and failures than the child does, we need to examine why that is. Have our children's struggles replaced struggles we should be having and feeling proud about and caring about for ourselves? Perhaps we are just looking ahead and, because of our more extensive experience, seeing how important a task our children are tackling really is. If that is the case, we can just remind ourselves that it is the experience of tackling tasks that makes competent adults. Then we can butt out, let them learn, be advisers, be supporters, and not try to control them through our approval. But if we find that we really do want to control them and the outcomes of their lives with our approval, we should go out and get a dog.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We'd love to hear your thoughts, so let's hear 'em! We're exploring serious ideas here, and think that a good intellectual discussion is a great way to fine-tune one's thoughts. Especially welcome are concrete examples from YOUR life, questions, and thoughtful challenges.

Personal attacks, spam, etc. is not welcome and will probably be deleted, unless we choose to keep them for our own amusement.