Saturday, October 21, 2017

Pathfinders: How to Effectively Praise

      “Fathers, provoke not your children, lest they be discouraged.” Colossians 3:21

The modern world embraces self-esteem as the end-all/be-all of child-rearing goals. Convinced that poor self-esteem is the cause behind our children's rebellion and misbehavior, a generation of parents have poured praise on their children and have succeeded in producing a crop of what many observers have called "precious snowflakes" - spoiled bratty kids who expect the world to heap approval on them as a right rather than something one earns.

As youth leaders, we have a solemn responsibility to guide children toward responsible adulthood. We are called to walk the narrow line between lifting up children's spirits and indulging their worst impulses.  So do we do that by giving everyone a participation trophy and eliminating any recognition of hard work and effort so some kids don't feel inferior and have their self-esteem damaged?

I used to work with emotionally disturbed, mentally ill and abused kids. Many of them were seriously damaged. Most had virtually no self-confidence or self-esteem. My primary job there as a recreation therapist, a vocational counselor and equestrian therapist was to help build up the ability of children whose spirits had been crushed. These kids were like abused animals, lashing out at everything and everyone that got close to them.

It was at this time I found a wonderful book by a psychologist named "Haim Ginott" called "Between Teacher and Child".  He also wrote a companion book for parents called "Between Parent and Child." The new version was updated by his daughter and I haven't read it, but his earlier book was really a departure from the loosey-goosey and ultimately disastrous child-rearing philosophy of Dr. Spock.  Ginott talks about how to:
  • Discipline without threats, bribes, sarcasm, and punishment
  • Criticize without demeaning, praise without judging, and express anger without hurting
  • Acknowledge rather than argue with children's feelings, perceptions, and opinions
  • Respond so that children will learn to trust and develop self-confidence
One of Ginott's most powerful techniques for engaging children is a simple principle for praising a child effectively. Too often we think we can praise kids by telling them things like "You are a great musician" when they bang out a song on the piano. We hang their crayon artwork on the fridge and proclaim, "You are a great artist!"  We praise a good grade on a test by telling them they are " smart!"  And we do surprising damage to our children by doing so.

How? When we label children great artists and students and musicians, we judge them, something even Scripture tells us we are told not to do. The exhortation, "Judge not that ye be judged" doesn't just apply to negative judgment. "Praise, done lazily by applying labels, is ineffective at best and damaging at worst. You don't full kids. If you tell a child he is a good boy, he knows better. He knows you are a liar because he knows what ungood things he sometimes does.

A teacher once decided she was going to change her unruly class's behavior by building their self-esteem.  She walked into her classroom and started her class by telling her kids she knew it was going to be a "great day" because all the children in her classroom were all "good boys and girls". The classroom erupted. It was the worst day she'd had in her career.

So why would that happen? It's because when we lazily label a child a good something or other, we tell the child we expect that they will always be good at whatever it is we are praising them for. Many times, children will try to prove you are wrong. Then they don't always have to meet the perfect standards you evidently expect of them.  God showed us that with the children of Israel who thought they'd show God they were good enough to please Him.

When we praise children (and adults for that matter), says Ginott, we should avoid labels and instead tell the child what you like about what they have done. Even better, tell them how what they have done pleases you. Kids want to please grownups. The secret is to give them praise so that they know how to please you. They don't know. Targeted praise like this is like catnip to tabby cat. Once children know what gets them your approval, they will repeat this behavior over and over.

Let me tell you a true story that illustrates the power of targeted praise. This is one of the first times I tried Ginott's targeted praise technique. I worked with emotionally disturbed children who were really messed up. Most had concurrent diagnoses of mental illness, abuse, neglect and developmental disability. We were experimenting with an art therapy program. We later hired an artist to run it, but at first I did the art classes.

There was this one little girl who had a history of abuse and neglect. She didn't trust anyone and had difficulty bonding with adults in particular. During her first art therapy class, she was fascinated with the marker pens. She worked at her table for quite a while. I saw her jump up after a while and come to me with her paper in her hand. She presented me with a picture that was light blue on the top half and dark blue on the bottom half.

I was stumped as to how to praise the little girl. You don't use empty praise like "You're a great artist." (I'd just finished Dr. Ginott's book so I knew that kids don't fall for that). So I told her, "Hmmm. It's a shade of light blue and on the bottom it's a darker blue. I like those colors."

She immediately jumped to my aid. "That's the sky," she said pointing to the light blue, "And that's the water," she explained proudly.

"Oh," I sighed, relieved to know what the painting was about, "You have done a seascape." The little girl lit up like a Christmas tree and dashed off to do another picture. The next picture was the same blue on blue with a little green pyramid shaped thing in the boundary between the two blue spaces.

"An island!" I said, hopefully. She gave me a big grin and dashed off again. The next one had a little house on it. The one after that had a palm tree. Then the house gained a chimney, then the sky gained a cloud and the sun. Every time I mentioned the new addition, it remained in the next picture. If I forgot to mention the new addition - the bird she added or a window on the house, it got left out the next thing. The little girl is now 40 years old and lists me as her Father on Facebook.

Another of my helpers had a similar, but opposite experience with an young autistic boy in the class. The boy struggled to make a very detailed and actually quite stunning picture. When he showed it to his counselor, the counselor went for the easy praise. "You're a really wonderful artist, Chris," he said holding up the picture for everyone to see. Horrified, Christ snatched the picture back, crumpled it into a ball and threw away the evidence. He refused to do any more pictures. That one picture was evidence that he was a "great artist" and Chris knew that he wasn't always able to do work that was that good. So he shied away from even trying lest his counselor find out he wasn't a "wonderful" artist. 

You may not always see an immediate reaction from your kids when you use empty praise like that. Emotionally disturbed kids react much more quickly and demonstrably than normal kids do. Tell a regular kid that he or she is a great baseball player or a brilliant mathematician and they may smile at the praise, but they soon figure out you're blowing them off with the easy compliment.

Empty praise tells a child nothing about what pleases you. If he cleans his room and you tell him he's a "good boy", it says nothing about what he did right.  Try these techniques when you praise and you'll tell the child what he or she is doing that pleases you. Remember the child want to please you. When you give only empty praise and the only time you are specific is when he is doing something wrong, the the only thing the child learns is how to disappoint you. Try this:
  1. Find specific things that the child does that please you.
  2. Tell the child how what he or she has done pleases you.
  3. Tell the child how what he or she has done helps you.
  4. Show the child you appreciate what he or she has done.
  5. Avoid telling the child what you think he or she is. 

When you are working with your Pathfinders, remember to keep your eyes open. Know what they are doing, especially when they don't think you are watching. When you let them know specifically what they did and why it was a good thing,  and what it meant to you, it's a very powerful thing. It lets the child know how to get your approval.  Most of the reason we get into trouble with kids is we aren't very good about telling them in detail what we want from them.  Oh, we're very good at telling them what they do wrong, which may be why they repeat that sort of behavior more frequently than they do the kind of behavior we want.

Instead of "Good job!" tell a kid "Wow, this floor really shines!" (if the floor really does shine). Show them something that they did well, let them know it pleases you, and they will repeat it. Don't tell a kid, "You're a great helper!"  Instead tell them, "Thanks, that really helped me get done with my work." The child then understands why you are pleased with them. You made it personal. 

If you're on a camping trip, pick out a group that did a good job pitching their tent. Walk around it, looking at the tent pegs, the tent poles and how they stowed their gear. Comment on everything they did right. Mention if the pegs are driven in at the proper angle, if the poles are set squarely and secured, or if the inside of the tent looks neat. Before you know it other kids will ask you to look at their tents too. Make the same kinds of observations with all of your kids and pretty soon you'll have a crackerjack tent pitching crew as they compete to draw your praise for their work. And each time you praise a specific thing, you teach them what they did right. The others will watch and learn.

This way you don't have to teach by criticizing. You teach by praising. I've seen too many Pathfinder "leaders" who thought they were drill sergeants and who treated the kids as if they were a part of some kind of a paramilitary organization. The point of summer camp and Pathfinders is to teach kids practical and social skills by having fun. Robert Rider, president of the Oklahoma Conference taught me that you can save more young souls by showing kindness, by paying attention and by remembering what your job is, than you can by by barking orders.

I took those lessons with me to my later work as a teacher, as a recreation therapist with emotionally disturbed and mentally ill children, and as a community organizer working with bipartisan groups to help people in need. Our jobs as youth and Pathfinder leaders is to lead, not drive. We show kids the way, with kindness, humor and clear signals. We mark the trail for our young people to follow. We let natural consequences teach for us when they stray and we welcome them back when they return to us, even if they are a little battered for having gone off track.

God says that he will be our children's teacher (Isa. 54:13). Our job is to go before them and show by example what mere words can never teach.  Jesus said let your words be well chosen. He didn't lecture. He told stories and let his listeners draw their conclusions. We all learn like children for most of our lives. Children want to know what to do that will please us. Let's show them by telling them we notice when they do the right thing.

© 2017 by Tom King


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