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Parenting through Encouragement and Praise

Updated: May 19, 2020

Parenting is a universal experience and yet can seem so different for every family, culture, country and context. The nuances that make this experience of raising a child so unique include what the parents or caregivers bring of themselves to the relationship, as well as the unique circumstances that the caregiver-child dyad find themselves in. However, there is a common denominator to the experience of parenting: it is hard, and often a thankless or judgmental space to be in.

At Ububele we understand the difficulties of parenting. We offer an 8-week parenting program called The Incredible Years, tailored for parents of children between the ages of 7 and 14 years. Being a parent requires a fair amount of honesty (at least to yourself), so let’s begin by admitting that we felt as humbled to run a parenting course as we did to write a blog about it. There are a range of judgements and stereotypes that can make being open and honest about the struggles of parenting so difficult.

The 7 to 14 year-old period is a challenging time in a child’s development and requires adjustment from the entire family if it is to maintain a healthy balance. Apart from starting ‘big’ school and the homework that comes with it, children in this age group are undergoing cognitive, emotional, and biological changes that could leave parents feeling under-equipped. Cognitively, this concrete operational phase sees children developing an understanding for concepts such as time, space, and quantity. They are able to start thinking theoretically, hypothetically, and counterfactually. From the age of 11 years and older, strategy and planning become possible. These changes sound marvellous but some parents come to Ububele asking for assistance with children who may be experiencing behavioural difficulties. These parents can feel overwhelmed when their children’s capacity to strategize and execute actions far exceed their reflective and planning capabilities. Apart from learning to read and write, do sums, and gain independence, children’s peers gain greater significance and act as major moderators of children’s self-esteem. This sounds healthy but if your child is experiencing academic difficulties, bullying, or conflict in the home, they may be vulnerable to relying on negative peer influence and other risky behaviours to regulate their suffering self-esteem. Add stressed parents, generational trauma, poverty, unemployment, and poor access to health services to the mix, and the relationship between parents and children becomes strained, sometimes even destructive. The Incredible Years Parenting Program, facilitates a positive bond between parents and children by advancing the social and emotional behaviour of children through caring and positive parenting. This program aims to promote social and emotional learning, emotion regulation and problem solving with parents. The program ultimately strives to prevent the onset of delinquency, drug abuse, and violence among an at-risk, vulnerable population and grow children into competent, secure, and responsible adults.

One of the topics is on praise and encouragement. Through this, amongst several other topics, the Incredible Years Programme aims to aid parents in fostering a positive relationship with their children. Now these words (praise and encouragement), may seem quite removed and some parents might think this is being too soft on their children or spoiling them. Such myths around praise and encouragement can form barriers to really motivating and encouraging children to not only persist with difficult tasks but to make them independent beings who can initiate tasks, and be responsible. Most importantly, praise and encouragement can provide nourishment for the child’s self-esteem and confidence, something pivotal to this age and later as they enter adulthood. Erik Erikson would argue that if children’s initiative is not encouraged, supported, and praised they may begin to feel inferior and doubt their own abilities. Moreover, if a child’s actions, efforts and initiatives are met with negativity, criticism and punishment, they may never develop intrinsic motivation. What they may develop, however, is poor self-esteem and a poor self-image which carry far-reaching negative consequences.

Praise and encouragement are drip-feeds of positivity, which can be welcomed by parents who may feel overworked, underappreciated and as if their days are made up of fatigue, and the stresses that come with being a parent. A chance to step back and appreciate the child’s efforts, and their ability to perform a task or persist with something difficult such as homework or a class project provides an opportunity to really get to know one’s child. As each family is unique, so is each child and this form of parenting may look different for each parent and child. What may work for one child may not work for another. One child may take more to verbal praise such as “I appreciate you helping me set the table for dinner” or “Well done, it seems like you put a lot of effort into your homework today”. Others may require a more hands-on approach, or the introduction of tangible rewards to reinforce a certain behaviour. For example, a teenager comes home late. The parent wants the teenager to come home at a reasonable hour because of safety concerns and so that they can help with supper preparation. The conversation could go something like this, “I can see that you are coming home late, and I hope that we can agree that you come home by 4pm so that you can help with supper. If you do that I can give you extra money for the weekend so that you can buy something you like.” If a child is trying to fulfil such an agreement, praise can be used to encourage the behaviour you want to see “Thank you for coming earlier today, I can see that you are trying hard to keep to our agreement”. Sometimes effort needs to be praised, to continue to foster and grow the child’s responsibility. Parents can use a single word to provide praise and feel that this might cover all that is needed. What is important is not particularly the words that are used, but rather that the statement highlights and acknowledges the desired behaviour, e.g. making one’s bed or getting up early without being asked, and shows appreciation for it, e.g. “thank you for…” or “I appreciate that you…” It is important to avoid pitfalls such as being sarcastic or undermining the praise with something negative. These are examples of this kind of undermining: “Thank you for coming to the table for supper on time, but it would have been nice if you washed before coming to the table – you are so dirty” or “Wow! You actually made your bed! I wish you could do this everyday!”. Always try to be authentic and sincere when praising and encouraging your child. A helpful way to really ensure one’s effectiveness in praising or encouraging, is to imagine how a child might feel or think from the interaction, and ultimately what the child may take away from it. Will it make them feel good? Will it communicate that their efforts are valued? Will they come away from it knowing that their parent or caregiver sees them and the efforts they make? Praise and encouragement can often make a child feel seen and heard, which is a powerful and meaningful way to build on the relationship. If one is seen and heard this has significant implications later, such as healthier self-esteem and self-image which encourages one to persevere even when things get tough.

The external world presents many varying challenges for young children, so it is important to really strengthen the connection between caregiver and child. This connectedness truly grounds a family throughout many crises, and builds resilience in individuals and robustness in the family to keep relationships healthy and intact despite the circumstances. In a world of negativity and hardships, praise and encouragement can be a beaming light and positive energy that truly makes an impact. Some parents might be reading this and thinking that this seems almost impossible to achieve. There is no time between work, getting the children to and from school, feeding them, and ensuring they have clean clothes. We know how busy and tiring it can be to be a parent especially if you are managing a household on your own or have more than one child. However, you need only take small bites of the ‘elephant’ before tackling it entirely.

This topic of praise and encouragement proved to be quite difficult for parents to receive on our most recent parenting course. Have you ever noticed how we (parents and non-parents alike) tend to notice and commit to memory negative experiences more easily than positive ones? One of the most challenging tasks in my (limited) experience with working with parents is to get them to shift their focus from their children’s problem behaviours, to reframing positively those behaviours which they would like to see more of. In this case, the moral of the story is ‘less is not more’. Here is an example with parents focusing on behaviours they want to see less of: “We don’t want to see our daughter listening to music on her earphones all the time”. Granted, this may be annoying for several reasons, but after challenging this perspective in a parenting course, parents’ focus will hopefully shift to the behaviour they want to see more of: “We want to have more conversation with our daughter, so we can feel connected to her. Having her earphones in her ears all the time feels like it gets in the way of that”. As you read the example above, you may have felt some sort of emotional contrast between the two sentences? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps the two sentences are open to cultural scrutiny, perhaps not. This is a thought that each parent can explore for themselves and decide what is best for their family. The choice however, may affect how you react to the outcome of each of the above. The second sentence is constructive and invites an attitude of encouragement and praise when the child refrains from using earphones all the time at home. The daughter’s refraining from this behaviour, aligns with the parents’ goals for a closer relationship with their daughter and may be met with remarks of appreciation which reinforces the positive behaviour change. This in turn, leads the child to being intrinsically motivated not to isolate herself from her family through the constant use of her earphones. This is one small example, but the principle can be extended to all areas of the home and school. Finally, do not forget self-care. Self-care is pivotal in parenting. If you are completely depleted and exhausted, you can feel as if you do not have much to give. But taking time out for an activity you enjoy or to rest can make all the difference. There is no need to be apologetic for this. Allow for boundaries and communicate them to your children. “I have had a rough day and am feeling very tired, so I am going to make some tea and relax for a bit. I will come and help you with your home work after that”. Allowing yourself to take this time to re-centre and connect with your “self” before jumping into the next big chunk of your day is so important.

Jacqui Morgan and Vickashnee Nair – Ububele Intern Counselling Psychologists

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