Really? I hear you say. Well, it depends on how you do it but for most of us we do more accidental long term harm than good when we praise our children. Resilient children who grow into emotionally robust adults have learnt how to objectively assess their own successes – they are not reliant upon any external validation, and they see mistakes as wonderful growth opportunities.
So think about it, when your child brings you their drawing and says, “What do think Mummy/Daddy?” and you say, “Well done, you’re such a great artist”, that is your own assessment of the art work, and your personal endorsement of its worth. If this type of external endorsement occurs over and over it becomes harder for your child to learn how to objectively view it for themselves. You may also be rewarding an innate ability that actually took little effort, so this can build an association for the child that anything that requires effort must mean they’re no good because they shouldn't have to try that hard. In the end they may grow into adults who will constantly seek validation from others because they have never learnt how do it intrinsically. And they may develop a fixed mindset to equate mistakes with failure, and effort with meaning they are no good.
But don’t despair, this doesn't mean you can’t offer support, it’s how you word that support that can set up your child for life. You can do three specific things to help:
- Help them to assess their own worth – “What do you think of your drawing? What do you like the most about it? What have you learnt while doing it?”
- Praise for effort, not natural ability – “I can see that you spend time to make sure you coloured within the lines”, “I can see the care you took in choosing the mix of colours you used”, “I can see the care and effort that went into this”
- Help them understand the importance of seeking feedback for mistakes, so they may learn and grow – “I’m glad you came and asked for help, seeking feedback helps us to become better and better”, “I understand that you’re disappointed with how this looks, so what can you ask your art teacher so you can improve for next time, because not getting something right is a wonderful opportunity to learn more?”
2. Don’t always buy them what they ask for
It’s not our kids fault but they have grown up in a world that doesn't wait for anything. Teaching them some self-control, to wait and save for things is a wonderful skill you can give them. Patience is a learnt skill, so they need to have opportunities to experience it to develop it. Yes, they’ll likely whine and tell you that ALL their friends already have one (whatever it is!). But there is plenty of research to show children who learn to delay gratification grow into more resilient adults. Without us helping them, they enter the adult world ill-equipped to save for their first car, or how to say no to that piece of cake. Even learning how to be grateful for a gift they might not like is something they need to learn. The alternative can look quite ugly…..watch the video below if you’re not sure what I mean!
3. Don’t over-protect them
All we want for our kids is to be happy. I'm sure it’s for that reason we over- protect them from failure. Yet in doing so we prevent them from learning how to master important life skills. One study found children who were granted more freedom became significantly more active and their teachers perceived the children to be more social, more resilient and more creative. And interestingly, injuries did not increase. Without taking some risks as children, they grow into risk-averse adults who can be psychologically fragile, socially awkward and unable to deal with everyday basic challenges that life throws at them. Making everything right for your children can make their teen and adult years scary and stressful. It’s a skill that can only be learnt from experience, please don’t deny them that experience. Let them climb that tree, dig in the dirt, walk bare feet or ride the bike to the park by themselves.
4. Don’t let them eat dinner in front of the TV or in their rooms
Our children are already exposed to more hours in front of a screen than any other generation, so at least enjoy a meal together! There can be so much family richness that incidentally occurs when families eat and chat together over the evening meal. We have always encouraged the talk by going around the table sharing:
- The best thing in our day
- The most challenging thing in our day
- What we are most grateful for in our day
Sometimes we’ll have ‘bad manners night’ where we don’t use a knife and fork and simply bog into our meal with our hands. It creates loads of laughter and bonding together. Or other nights we’ll slow right down and savour our meal – eating in silence for the first part of the meal to really appreciate all the tastes and textures and to give thanks for all of its goodness. Family time together helps develop important social skills for life.
5. Don’t berate yourself for mistakes or comfort yourself with alcohol
Our children are sponges. How we behave is what they observe to be right. If I say out loud, “I’m such an idiot, I can’t even bake cakes properly”, then my children will inherently believe that if things go wrong for them it must be because they are stupid. Or if I come home from work and say, “I need a glass of wine, it’s been such a hard day”, then by association my children will adopt a belief that alcohol is a cure for stress. Whether we like it or not, our children will model our behaviours – the good and the bad. So be very careful what you are modelling to encourage positive self-talk and healthy behaviours for dealing with stress.
So that's it, my 5 suggestions for happy children. I wish you every success with raising your children and enjoying the journey.