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Using the inverse power of praise on children

My 6 year old is smart. Not brilliant, not a genius, but quick, bright, perceptive, sensitive, and intelligent. Her information retention is impressive, and her verbal skills often have people thinking that she’s a year or two older than she is. And I never, ever use the word smart in front of her if I can help it.

Everyone tells my daughter how smart she is. They think I’m incredibly bizarre when I tell them I’m using the inverse power of praise by not telling her. They say, “You’re so smart.” I respond, “Yes, she worked very hard on learning to read that story,” or, “I know, we’re so pleased that she has been practicing all the words to her favorite song.”

Inverse Power of Praise CalloutI first read about this approach in Po Bronson’s NurtureShock essay, “The inverse power of praise“, and I’ve talked about it a lot since then with my parenting friends. The idea is that by complimenting something that your child perceives as inherent (smartness) instead of something they can control (effort) you are setting him or her up to believe that if he or she can’t just DO something, he or she cannot LEARN to do it. Bronson argues that in the great self-esteem push of the 1980s many of us fell victim to this kind of thinking. The science at the time believed that praising kids would give them great self-esteem. Likewise, many of us were raised being told we were smart, creative, and generally awesome at everything. And then, many of us struggled to understand how to study in school because we lacked the ability to organize ourselves and complete long term projects. We often felt that if we weren’t immediately good at something there was no point in trying – we wouldn’t ever be good.

This is not what I want my daughter to learn, so I’ve turned to the inverse power of praise.

How the inverse power of praise works
My daughter is smart, sure. But I compliment how hard she works, when she solves problems on her own, or when she doesn’t give up when the going gets tough. I compliment things under her control, praise ways that she influences and changes her world for the better. I want her to learn that she is powerful. I want her to know that it is not something inherent or predetermined that creates her limitations, but her vision, and her effort.

  1. Identify specific behavior that is earned – Parents must learn to identify how a child got to a successful conclusion, then, tell that child what it is that helped him or her to succeed. For example: “Jimmy, I know you gave it a lot of effort and energy to clean your room. I really appreciate that!”
  2. Identify results – Parents must first identify the difference between earned rewards and rewards that come to the child without effort and energy expended. But don’t dwell on the results, because the point here is that parents need to recognize the effort and the behavior that has delivered the results. The inverse power of praise means that even if the painting was not that great, the fact that the child went through the discipline and effort to complete it is what’s important. For example: “I think your painting impressed grandma. What other great pictures can we draw for our friends?”
  3. Offer gratitude and encouragement – Parents should remember that a sincere “thank you” can be enough, and should be enough for children to feel praised and satisfied. There’s nothing in the world a child seeks more than a parent’s affirmation. For example: “Jimmy, I want to let you know how much daddy and I appreciate your emptying the dishwater earlier today. That meant a lot to us. Thank you!”
  4. Choose your praise with discrimination – Parents need to remember that everything children do is not to be rewarded. For instance, after a routine, such as emptying the dishwasher, has been established, then parents can get by with a simple “Thanks”. An overabundance of praise goes against the inverse power of praise, so use praise sparingly.
  5. Spread your praise to other children – When a parent gives praise to another child for good action while his or her own child watches provides the opportunity for that child to know that rewards are not reserved inside the family. The inverse power of praise demonstrates how discriminating praise can be doled out. For example: “Thank you for showing my son Jimmy how to throw away the broken pieces from our ceramics project. We appreciate the help in our household.”

Giving praise helps children feel appreciated and respected, but only praise that is sincere and specific. Most parents tend to spread praise about like they’re blessings to be bestowed freely upon our children. In fact, we need to ensure that our praise is given only occasionally and with maximum effect.

Excessive praise kills motivation in a child because self-esteem becomes misunderstood when it is not cultivated and nurtured properly. Nowhere is this point better illustrated than in the Greek myth of Narcissus, where someone who was so very sure of himself he sat pondering the glories of his own reflection in a lake until his vanity overwhelmed him and he died. Here’s a perfect example of the inverse power of praise.


Dealing with a bored child can mean leaving them alone

Kids of today are too serious. They receive pressure to succeed, have little time to get bored and they often don’t make decisions on what they want to do. Play has become a structured regimen, much to the chagrin of children and their better nature. Dealing with a bored child can mean leaving them alone.

Plato QuotationThe American Academy of Pediatric says play is the development of children, not just a part of that development. Boredom leading to unstructured play might just be what the doctor ordered to counter attention deficit inclinations that most kids seem to have these days. Between school commitments, church or other spiritual activities, afternoon sports teams and evening television schedules, children are often completely overbooked.

Throw away the schedule
Schedules are something our children need to learn to follow (to be sure), but let us not forget that the world is an unscheduled one where nothing happens without someone scheduling it. Your child will be scheduled much of his or her adult life, taking directions and subjugated by bosses and other oppressive institutional structures. But there is anecdotal evidence today that shows that unstructured children who are forced to create interesting activities for themselves, tend to be more creative while learning how to dictate structure for themselves – and, ultimately, for others.

How to Encourage Unstructured Play
Many parents feel it is important to offer children opportunities, but unstructured play can also be part of teaching that structure. By placing them in after-school activities every day of the week, parents are creating dependencies for their children. On the other hand, encouraging kids to take initiative and create their own schedules can be a start to a creative life that can be bigger and better than what parents might imagine. Dealing with a bored child means letting them do things that they want:

  • The child chooses the child’s own destination -  Stop telling the kids where to go when they go outside. If they choose mud, then mud it is! It provides our children with sensory experiences through the squishing and mushing of the mud. These experiences can be essential to the development of the brain. Also, making mud pies can offer wonderful experiences with hand eye coordination.
  • Hand your children toys that have no specific designated purpose – Art supplies, cress-up clothes, dolls, and broken Legos are all abstract projects they can enjoy. Give them plenty of ways to express themselves without limiting them to one way.
    Freely Drawn Face

    Unstructured coloring can help create creative habits.

  • Controlled chaos is important – It may seem weird to many mothers, but everyone needs to release the reigns and let a little mess take front stage. Controlled chaos is where we as parents ensure that when chaos time is over we are able to clean up the aftermath easily.
  • Color without lines – Providing free play is recognized as important to our society, but the tendency is to provide coloring books with the lines already drawn in them. “Just fill in the middle,” one might say. But a better alternative might be to provide the child with a blank piece of paper and have them go at it alone. What will happen?
  • Let your kids meet strangers – Many children are not learning how to interact with strangers, either. Meeting random kids in the park (even the weird ones) can cause many parents ultimate fear what their children might learn. But in my case I beg my kids to go make new friends, and they will learn who is scary and who is not on their own. That’s a skill they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives.
  • Let kids stay up past their bedtimes (occasionally) – We all understand the perils of a tired child, but letting kids stay up past their normal bedtimes can allow for them to learn the necessity of sleep for their own well being, not just what adults tell them is good for them.

Encouraging our kids to be the best that they can be is not a problem for most parents. However, when parents spend all of their spare time focusing on a particular skill or activity, this limitation can be harmful to their emotional health. Many times the pressures that we put our children under – to perform in school, creative arts, or sports – can cause stunted creative growth.

Pacific Standard magazine reports on the importance of unstructured play, and how children may find themselves underdeveloped and emotional unstable for their age when structure is too prevalent in their short lives. One of the biggest ways our children learn how to express themselves and be happy, according to the magazine, is by having plenty of unstructured free time during childhood.

Breastfeeding in Asia is not what I expected

“This baby feeds from his mother’s milk,” I answered in my newly-acquired language. Stepping out with a newborn in Indochina, I had expected the typical questions to be “Boy or girl?” or “How old?” But what I heard was very different – “No Breastfeeding!”

Local friends, waitresses, fellow passengers on the city bus, taxi drivers, the neighbor’s housekeeper — everyone in this foreign land wanted to know if my baby was breastfed. I answered with quiet confidence: “My baby drinks milk from his mother.”

Breastfeeding in Asia is not what I expectedLiving in a developing country, I assumed breastfeeding in Asia happened for all babies. After all, breastfeeding is very economical and many countries in Asia offer some of the most generous maternity leave laws in the world. It took some time to synthesize the complexity of their perspectives on breastfeeding in Asia, however. Not everyone thinks breastfeeding is all that great, so it took fortitude and commitment to fight through the shame and to continue nursing my child during my stay in Southeast Asia.

From young mothers I often heard, “I couldn’t feed my baby. I didn’t have milk.” I wanted to take these moms in my arms and say, “I’m so sorry. They lied to you. You have milk for your baby if you’d only use it!” These moms were shortchanged the opportunity to breastfeed because of ignorance. Somewhere deep in the psyche of their mothers and the neonatal nurses in the hospital was the belief that formula was a better source of nutrition than breast milk. Perhaps the third world has the same problem the United States had in the 1950s – 1970s. They are playing catchup.

Despite the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pronouncements on the importance of breastfeeding, many Americans also don’t believe breastfeeding is all that important.

Ignorance about a scientific problem called nipple confusion is rampant. This problem happens when newborns and mothers find bottles easier during the first days following birth. But the long term consequences are significant as children and mothers never learn to properly breastfeed.

It is difficult when doctors and nurses tell parents to only give babies formula, because their patients believe them. Mothers are often told something similar to “Your baby was hungry, and you don’t have milk.”  Aware of this practice, I taped self-published notices in the local language to my son’s crib that read: “This baby only breastfeeds.”

In parts of Asia many middle-aged women have a perception that breastfeeding is dirty and something animals do. Only the unclean, uncivilized, uneducated would breastfeed. So, I quietly took my place, stereotyped as the unclean, uncivilized, and uneducated by breastfeeding in Asia – but I held firm to my belief that breastfeeding was right for my child.

Southeast Asian grandmothers, with pride sparkling in their eyes, would say to me, “We have money to buy milk powder (formula) for our grandchild.” These grandmas had raised their children during a famine. Some days, they had only the runoff water from cooking rice to give their babies. With increased wealth and food, these grandmas scraped together what money they had to get only the best for their grandchildren. The look on strangers’ faces communicated disapproval for my not buying the best for my baby.

Other third-world countries experience the same perils when parents arrive in urban areas where “science” influences their decisions to breastfeed. The best way to feed, these mothers will often conclude, is the formula powder that came in shiny cans from industrialized nations.

“Many of the women from the countryside usually do breastfeed, even up to one year, even if the lactating mother is malnourished. But when these women come to Mogadishu, they see the women here bottle-feeding with formula, and believe it is better. Then they start changing their ways.”
– Counselor in Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) practices, Shamso Abdullahi

From an impoverished, underprivileged, rural woman on the city bus, I heard condemnation. One moment stands out in my memory about breastfeeding in Asia, when I met a fellow traveler who was going to peddle a few handmade trinkets in the city. She asked, “Does your baby breastfeed?” although by this time, my one-year-old son had weaned. I was quietly relieved to be able finally to give the acceptable answer. “My son drinks powdered milk.” My relief was vain and fleeting when she looked at me with pride in her accomplishments and in pity for my failure. “My baby is two years old, and she will still drink milk from her mother.”

Turns out the tides may be changing in favor of breastfeeding, after all. Event this rural woman in a third-world country new the benefits of breastfeeding beyond one year.

How I got a free dinner for breastfeeding in public

My family and I were enjoying a nice dinner at a local restaurant. We have three children each several years apart – two boys, 11 and 8, and my little 12-month old princess. I had breastfed my little girl since she was born while the boys were bottle fed when they were babies. It was a choice I made, and I don't question other parents who decide not to breastfeed. I've done both. BreastfeedingIn the restaurant we had already ordered and were waiting for the food to arrive. My little princess suddenly became a royal problem when she decided it was time to eat, screaming at the top of her lungs. I wasn’t going to console her by distracting her toward something else; instead, my weapons are built in and ready to go at all times. My baby was getting nursed. So, I sit her on my lap, cradle her, kiss the top of her head, and let her begin to feed – instantly, the crying stopped. During this day and age we have advanced in so many ways, but in other ways we are stumbling to call ourselves civilized. We offer our children the best in processed milk, and a nipple placed on the end of a bottle, but acceptance and support for breastfeeding mothers is available as long as you do it in the privacy of your own home. In that restaurant I didn’t have a cover-up over her head. It was hot in their – not that I need to make excuses for breastfeeding in public. I was wearing a maya wrap, a cloth baby carrier that contours to my curves, and my baby's head was blocked by the wrap. Here's where the story gets weird. I was approached by our server and informed that there was a bench in the bathroom that can be used for that. I was so stunned I think I muttered "thanks" before she walked away. Not that I went anywhere, and a few minutes later another person came to ask, "Do you know about the restroom to feed your baby?" What kind of idiots are these people? I asked to speak on the manager. When the manager came over I asked him if he would mind taking my dinner and serving it to me in the restroom. He looked as though I was off my...
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