While you weren’t looking your baby has grown up into a child. You realise she is old enough to start school and wonder if she will cope… Up to 6 years of age, children are working on issues of basic trust with a primary caregiver, who is usually their mother. As they begin primary school the trust that has been created between the primary caregiver and the child, expands to include more people and situations. They are confronted with the bigger world where they need to fit in, succeed and feel good about themselves. The relationship with you, their parents is still vitally important, but now they are ready to start interacting more with teachers and other children and the success or failure of these interactions will have an impact on their self-esteem.
The developmental tasks of primary school childrenBefore 6 years of age the child’s family is her main point of reference. Mom and Dad are the big people who know everything. They are also the mirrors in which children see themselves reflected. If this reflection has been positive, children will enter the next stage with a healthy self-image. As they enter primary school – 6 to 9 years old – the emphasis changes and their teacher now becomes the person who ‘knows everything’. She becomes an important person they will model on, and whose warmth and approval they will seek. Around 9 to 12 years of age there is another shift and children’s most important point of reference becomes their friends and the peer group to which they belong. As they measure themselves against their same-sex friends, they become more aware of who is the most physically attractive, the most popular, the cleverest, the best at sports, etc. and they evaluate their personal success against these age-mates.
How best can we help children succeed?
You may have been advised to give your child a lot of ‘positive reinforcement’, so it helps to understand what that means. The concept of positive reinforcement began in the mid 1900′s with the Behaviorist School of psychology. Research on animals showed that when desirable behaviour was rewarded, and undesirable behaviour ignored, the animals being studied would choose to perform the desirable behaviour and the undesirable behaviour stopped. This concept found it’s way into parenting theories, and parents were advised to praise their children for good behaviour or for performing certain tasks, in order to motivate them to succeed. Charts and gold stars were introduced, and parents were told to praise their children when they did well.
By the 1980s a new understanding was emerging, as the disadvantages of this system became apparent. Parenting experts began to caution parents against using ‘evaluative praise’. When children or their behaviour are seen as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or are given labels such as ‘clever’ or ‘talented’, it places a huge burden on them to keep performing to please their parents by doing the ‘good’ things. They may become high achievers, but not be happy as they may start achieving in areas that their parents or teachers see as ‘good’ but are not necessarily the things the child enjoys or where her talents lie. Evaluative praise can also destroy children’s natural love of doing things for the sake of doing them. They will lose the positive feedback they get from the simple act of doing something they like to do, doing it well for their own satisfaction, and the joy of succeeding, which is what builds self-esteem.
Children are born with natural curiosity, and the desire to learn and master practical and interpersonal skills. They do this for the sheer joy of learning and being creative, and for the pleasure of exploring their world, and attempting things and then succeeding. What they most enjoy doing will vary from child to child, but if we provide an enriched environment from which they can choose the skills they would like to master, the subjects they want to know more about, or the groups they would like to join, we can make this time of their lives an adventure in living. Happy children feel good about themselves and attract other positive people to themselves as friends.
Encouragement and validation without ‘evaluative praise’
When children feel good about something they have achieved, they want to share their joy and excitement with us. They may be happy that their team won a game, or may bring home something they have made. For example, if a child comes home excited about a painting she has done, it is important not to use evaluative praise, which labels it ‘good’, or ‘beautiful’ or label the child as ‘clever’ or ‘artistic’ — which puts the child into a ‘high expectation’ box. Rather we can just look at it (which is probably what the child asked us to do), and let her know that we are enjoying it and hope she enjoyed making it. We can mention that we like the bright colours, point to certain features or ask intelligent questions like, “Which is your favourite colour in this painting?” The child will be happy that we have seen her efforts, enjoyed looking at her work, and are interested to know how she feels about it. She will feel that we have seen her world through her own eyes but will not be pressurised to keep performing in order to keep getting our praise.
Children who are given evaluative praise are constantly under pressure to keep performing in order to keep getting our praise and attention, or avoid losing our approval. What started off as a pleasure can become just one more task that is performed to please the parents. A child with a strong need to please her parents, may stop doing the things that give her personal enjoyment and fulfillment. Instead she may start to focus on the things that her parents and teachers praise her for. If those are not in line with her natural interests or abilities it becomes a struggle, leading to discouragement and negative self-perception. She may also become unable to explore and develop her own natural gifts and talents and discover her own uniqueness, which is vital for developing self-esteem.
Dealing with too much pressureToday’s children are often put under enormous pressure. They are expected to get good marks at school and do well in competitive sports in order to ‘fit in’ and be ‘popular’ in their peer group. If their personal skills are not ones that help them to excel in these specific areas they may become very discouraged and feel that they are a failure. Parents have the unique opportunity of encouraging children, by helping them find tasks that match their abilities. Successfully completing tasks, especially ones they have chosen themselves and enjoy doing, gives children the feedback, ‘I am good at doing things and I can succeed’.
If your child is in a school where there is an emphasis on getting good marks (as opposed to the satisfaction of learning for the enjoyment of learning) it’s best to be casual about it. While it can be helpful to encourage children to be successful (in many different areas) it is important to avoid putting pressure onto them. If a child is doing well, you can simply comment that you are very happy if she is learning interesting things at school and that you hope she is enjoying the work. If your child is not doing well, this is the time to find out what the problem is, by letting the child express her feelings about the situation.
If she is having a problem, for example with reading, it would be helpful to ask her what it is about reading that is hard for her. It may emerge that she has problems with the teacher, the way she is being taught, or the reading material. If she seems to be struggling with a certain subject, you can meet with the teacher and see if extra help is needed, or if she could maybe choose another subject she is more interested in. Children do well when they enjoy what they are doing. Remind the child that getting good marks is not the only measure of success, and help her choose situations (at school or elsewhere) where she can find non-competitive activities or hobbies she really enjoys doing, and can experience what it feels like to succeed.
Children need a safe place where they can talk about their feelings. They don’t want to be judged, lectured to, or given advice. If they are encouraged to talk about what is bothering them, and are reflectively listened to, they will become able to make their own decisions about how to solve their problems, and will develop their own problem-solving skills. This builds self-confidence and self-esteem.
When children tell us how they feel, it is important that we listen carefully and reflect back to them that they have been heard and understood in a non-judgmental way. They also need to know that we understand their feelings. For example if a child is crying because he has been beaten up at school, parents need to focus on what the child is saying with regard to how he feels about it, rather than questioning him about who beat him up or where it happened. As the child shares his hurt we can help identify the deeper feeling, for example that he doesn’t feel accepted by his peer group or is having problems making friends.
If a child has been encouraged to share openly with her parents, she will feel free to bring her problems to them. If she is feeling hurt, discouraged, unhappy, angry, sad, or whatever the feeling is, it is important not to say, “You shouldn’t feel that way because…” Rather we can reflect back to the child that we hear and understand her feelings, with words like, “I hear you are upset”, “I understand why you feel angry”, “I can feel you are disappointed”, etc. As their feelings of upset subside, children’s minds become clearer and they are better able to think their own way through the problem, often coming up with very creative solutions.
Children with the greatest self-confidence are those whose parents are constructively involved in their lives. They get the message that they are important to their parents and have value. The support of the parent gives the child the confidence to try out new things and to push the limits. Such a child is likely to experience far more successes than a child who is afraid of attempting new behaviour. Children who have healthy relationships with their parents also tend to become involved in healthy peer relationships. They will seek out other children who are happy, well-adjusted and doing well.
While warm and close involvement with their children is important, parents need to be careful not to become over-involved in their children’s projects and successes. Parents who were unable to realise their own potential in childhood, may want to live out their unfulfilled dreams through their children or steer their children in the direction where their own interests lie. For example, they may feel particularly proud if they have a child who is excelling at sport, who is musical or can dance well. It’s important not to fall into the trap of giving evaluative praise, talking about the child’s successes to others in front of the child or asking the child to perform for friends or relatives. If an activity or task becomes more about the parent’s need than their own joy in performing it, children will probably lose interest. They can become very discouraged if they find that everything that gives them joy is used by the parent, to meet the parent’s unmet needs. Being allowed to be self-motivating, leads to success and creates self-confidence.
Sometimes children prefer to do the things they love without the parent’s involvement or comments. Parents should respect this, though they can be there to provide assistance if they are requested, or if they child wants to share something she has done or discovered. When invited by the child they can share in the joy and excitement that the child experiences when she is involved in the activities that she loves. This kind of parenting creates children who will grow up with a passion for life.
Social Skills — getting on with othersChildren feel good about themselves when they can interact well with other children as well as with adults, including extended family members and school-teachers. They learn relationship skills from the way their parents relate to them. It is by being treated kindly and respectfully by their parents, that children learn how to be kind and respectful to others. Authoritarian punishments, such as ‘time-outs’ (cutting off communication) or withdrawal of privileges (manipulation) as well as name-calling, blaming, shaming, hitting, shouting or making threats, not only hurt children, but teach them to treat others in the same way. This undermines their ability to have healthy or successful relationships with others. How we treat the child is how the child will treat others in her world.
Parents model social skills for their children by the way they relate to other adults and family members. They can also show their child how to deal with conflicts with other children. For example if a friend comes over and the two are fighting about the way they play a game, a parent can stop the arguing and give each child a chance to say how they are feeling and what it is they want. By helping them each to express their individual needs and come to a solution, we are modelling for the child how best to resolve conflicts with her friends. Often it is enough to just say, “Can the two of you think of a way to work this out so that you can both get what you want?” Children can come up with amazingly creative ideas.
Identity — how children see themselves
Children are busy discovering who they are in relationship to the world. Pre-teens spend a lot of time role-playing in order to find their unique identity. As they try out different roles they are asking, “Who am I among all these possibilities and which of these people will I be when I grow up? Will I be a teacher, a doctor or a dancer?” Some elements of their identity are already there, such as gender, race and sexual orientation. They may also need to deal with the practices of the religious belief system held by their family, which may set them apart from the others. For some children, fitting in is easy, as their natural attributes are well accepted in their environment. For others it is more problematic especially if they belong to a minority group or are different from most of their peers. Some children don’t fit in with the general expectations of their gender – for example a sensitive boy who loves to play the piano rather than excel at football, or a girl who prefers fixing mechanical things, while her age-mates are playing with dolls. Parents and teachers need to be sensitive towards a child who is struggling to fit in. These children can be assisted by an adult who will help them explore their image and abilities, and can assist them in finding their own special place in the world. Being unique and ‘different’ doesn’t mean you are not okay, in fact it can be wonderful!
How to help a child distinguish her own uniqueness
It is important that parents know their children well and recognise their natural abilities. The more they can recognise these unique abilities, the more they can reflect them to the child. Natural abilities will differ from child to child, as every child is unique, so parents should avoid comparing children, especially in the case of siblings. It is important to avoid not only negative comparisons, but any comparisons at all. Instead parents can focus on the unique positive qualities of each child, being careful not to give evaluative praise, but simply saying how they feel. “I enjoy listening to you when you play the piano, Susan, and I love watching you being so graceful Clare when you do gymnastics.” When children compare their different talents, the parent can reflect, “It’s lovely how both of you can use your talents in such different ways”.
Self-image — helping children feel good about themselves
Children flourish when parents acknowledge their positive aspects rather than focusing on negative aspects, which leaves children feeling insecure and unsure of themselves. Children with good self-image are children who feel wanted. If a child isn’t fitting in with her peer group the parent needs to highlight the fact that she will eventually find her niche in the bigger world where she will be valued for who she is. It is important that parents create a sense of belonging within the family. If a child knows she belongs and is wanted by her parents, it helps her to know that she will also be wanted in the bigger world. When a child feels nurtured and accepted by the parent, they will expect and be able to seek out nurturing and acceptance in the bigger world as well. Children also need to know that they have intrinsic value – that they are loved simply because they exist and not for what they can do or accomplish. According to Cape Town psychologist Abraham le Roux, being wanted, nurtured and valued are the three pillars of a healthy self-image, and children who feel secure in these areas are likely to be happy and successful in life.
Written by Pat Törngren © 2013
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