Problems like bullying, drugs, body piercing, and sexual experimentation have many causes, but all relate to the development of the child's self-image. One of the least-understood factors causing these problems is the use of praise. In order for praise to help create a healthy self-image in the developing child, it must be applied in an appropriate way; it must be earned. If it is not earned, then the praise will create all the problems it was meant to solve.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Authority and Obeying Orders

If you are a crew member on a racing sailboat, sometimes the skipper tells you to do something and you don’t quite understand why. In a racing situation, where your boat may be, for example, about to run into another boat, there isn’t time for any argument. You trust the skipper to know what he is doing, and you do what he says. If you and the skipper are experienced, and have worked together, you can recognize a time when you should not follow his instructions, usually because of some information you know which he doesn’t.

Most group interactions don’t work like that. People want to know what’s going on, and why you’re doing it, and they don’t do things just because you tell them to. Especially people in their early teens.

As I said before, I often tell children, “Don’t do it because I say so. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

This, of course, runs me in direct conflict with what some of their parents have been telling them all their lives. I always figure I’m doing the parents a favour. After all, the kid is going to rebel some time. If he learns to take some responsibility for his decisions early enough, then he’ll get things loosened up at home before he hits puberty.

However, if the parents manage to keep a complete lid on until puberty, the pattern starts. Kid gets antsy, Parent jams the lid on harder. Kid’s horomones are acting up, and kid gets more antsy. Parent gets worried, puts the lid on and sits on it. Kid gets mad. Parent gets mad. It’s only a matter of time until the whole thing boils over, and the longer the parent holds on, the more damage will be done.

Father: (standing at the door, arms folded) Do you know what time it is?
Daughter: Yes.
Father: What time are you supposed to be home?
Daughter: We just wanted to watch the end of the movie.
Father: What time are you supposed to be home? (She would like to discuss the situation, he would like to assert his authority)
Daughter: But Dad, all the other kids stay out at least until eleven. (Ahah. The old “all the other kids” gambit)
Dad: You aren’t all the other kids. You have a curfew, and I expect you home by ten o’clock!
Daughter: That’s not fair!
Dad: Yes it is. We’ve discussed this, and you know why you have a curfew, and why your mother and I want you home at that time. (Now he’s bringing in the mother for support. “We’ve discussed this” probably means, “I’ve told you many times”.)
Daughter: It still isn’t fair. We weren’t doing anything wrong. We were just watching a video over at Mary’s. All the other kids were staying till the end, and I couldn’t get a ride home until it was over. (This is probably the truth, if she’s 13 or 14. If she’s 16 or more, there’s an equal chance she’s been out necking or worse with the guy who gave her the ride home. This is exactly what Dad is afraid of, and now he goes over the line. In fact, he jumps right over the “You know you only have to phone, and I will come and get you” line, which usually works, because it puts the ball back in her court. However, he’s too mad, and too much of an authoritarian, to find a logical way to win.)
Dad: How do I know that you were doing what you say? If you’re willing to break one rule, you’re willing to break them all
Daughter: Are you accusing me of lying?
Dad: Well, are you? (Oops. The stupid question of all time.)
Daughter: Since you obviously don’t believe me, why should I bother?
Dad: You’ll bother as long as you’re living in my house. (We aren’t sure what she’s bothering, but they are far past logic, now. He’s moved up to the “as long as you’re in my house” play, from which there is only one exit.
Daughter: Then I’m leaving.
Dad: No you’re not.
Daughter: How are you going to stop me?

And at this point things are lined up for some real problems. Both of them are so angry that neither is going to back down. The quickest solution for the father is physical restraint, which she will call abuse, and the situation will get worse. Either she will have to give in, in which case she storms upstairs and they have put the inevitable off for a few more days. Or the mother comes in and mediates, which rarely happens, because Mother knows better than to get between those two when they are going at it. She’s her father’s daughter, after all. The worst case, of course, is that if she is 16, and there really is somebody out in the car, she will walk out the door, and just might not come back. Even worse, I suppose, is if the boyfriend hears the shouting, comes to the door at precisely the right moment, and turns out to be bigger than the father. The unpleasantness which could follow will be even harder to back down from.

So, to get back to the topic, I feel the solution which the parent should apply, but isn’t going to because he’s afraid to, is to back off a little bit, a little earlier in the child’s life. He needs to trust her more, and take responsibility for her behaviour less. Please note that this does not mean that he expects a slacker standard of behaviour. At least not much. If he listens to his daughter a bit, instead of laying down the law, he can figure out what a reasonable expectation might be, and they could agree to set the standard there. If she has some input, she’s more likely to follow the rule.

The point is to build trust through small doses of responsibility. Each time the child is made responsible for his own actions, and succeeds, it builds trust in the adult, and confidence in the child.

Don't mix this up with trust because of obedience. If you only trust your child because he always follows orders, you are not helping your child mature. Set it up so that you trust your child because he always does the right thing.

"Don't do it because I say so. Do it because it's the right thing to do."

Next Posting: Unearned Praise vs Unearned Love

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Setting Criteria to Encourage Excellence

How a Child Earns Praise

It would be easy to suppose that my theory of Unearned Praise means you can't comment on the quality of your child's activities. Don’t make that mistake.

The quality of what the child does is important, and some kind of qualitative feedback is necessary. If the child draws a squirrel that looks more like a dog, and the child is at an age where being able to draw a squirrel is possible, then you need to find an appropriate way to let the child know. Finding a drawing of a squirrel for him to copy is probably a good idea. The child then goes away with several objectives achieved: attention from the adult, acceptance of the work, and a further project to work on, with the expectation of further attention, acceptance and success. Powerful motivation!

If you instead make a big fuss about your mistake, as if this is all about you, and not about the child, then you are sending the message that there is a whole lot of importance in the fact that it doesn’t look like a squirrel. In the future, the child will bring art work to you with hesitation, wondering if he made a mistake. If your intention is to create a good little scholar, who listens attentively to the adult, and then goes away and does exactly what the adult says, no more, no less, then you’re doing fine. Of course, you’re also creating a little paranoid, who is afraid to try anything new, and willing to do anything to hide any mistakes he makes, in order to look good in your eyes.

One of the most brilliant students I ever taught was a girl from an ethnic background that rewards hard work, success, and bowing to authority, especially in women. This poor girl had some difficulty with my assignments at first. She spent a lot of time asking questions about exactly what I wanted, so that she could give it to me perfectly.

It was good for me, as well, because I learned to be more specific as to what truly constituted good work. However, I also encouraged her to take risks, to go one better, to think outside the box. One of my criteria for an “A” has always included, “An element which is extra, creative, and beyond the expectations of the assignment.” This girl learned, over the course of the year, how to make her own choices about assignments, and to think for herself.

Making assignments open-ended, with room for creativity, earned me the reputation with a certain segment of the parent population as being a “less structured” teacher. So the pocket Nazis tended to keep their children out of my classes, and everyone was happy. Except for their children, who missed my tender ministrations, and the chance to learn how to rebel against their parents.

Setting Criteria

What that student forced me to do was to be more careful in setting criteria. Once you have laid out exactly what success looks like, then you can give real praise. If the child accepts the criteria, strives for success, and achieves it, the child gains positive self-esteem, because the success is based on the child's accomplishment, not the adult's response.

This sort of thing is easy in sports. Let's say you want to help your child become a better runner. You figure out between the two of you (and maybe a coach or other expert) what would be a good goal for a time in the 100 metres. The child works towards that goal. When he has achieved it, or even when he has made some steps towards it, then you can praise him.

The Power of Criteria

If you set up criteria for success, and then praise that success, you are creating a very powerful teaching tool

When you compliment a child for the success of any specific deed, you are doing two things: you are giving the child personal approval, and you are reinforcing the power of the criteria you use for the approval.

If you complement someone for cooking a good meal, not only are you telling him that he has done well, but you are sending the message that being a good cook is important. Once again, how you phrase the compliment is important.

It is the difference between “I really like that pie,” and “That pie crust was certainly flaky.” If your praise is based on your own opinon (I like the pie), then the child thinks, “If I want to make Daddy happy, I make pie exactly like that.” So that child will make pies exactly like that until you are sick of them. If your comment is based on criteria, (the flakiness of the crust), then the child knows he has achieved success, and thinks, “I’m a good cook. I make flaky pastry.” Then, hopefully, he will go about learning other things to make him an even better cook.

Criteria and Control: Warning! Dangerous !

If you start setting criteria with your children, you will actually find it more difficult to control them. I mean the “do it because I said so” type of control.

You see, once you lay out the criteria for success, the kids will be able to argue with you about how they are doing, because they know the criteria, and they can see for themselves how they are progressing. This, of course, makes it a little tough on the adult, when these darn kids start arguing with you, but what a great learning experience! For you as well.

If, however, you stay hazy on the criteria, then you can keep control of the situation, because the main criteria for success is not what the child has done, but how you feel about it. This keeps him guessing, and keeps you in charge. It also gives him plenty of practice in manipulating people. Surprise, surprise: the parents who are the most controlling are the ones the most often manipulated by their children. The kids have learned exactly which buttons to push to get Mummy or Daddy to go off on a tangent and forget that it’s the kid who messed up.

Perhaps all this sounds very complicated, and some people are going to be afraid to say anything nice to their children. Don’t let’s get too fanatic about this. You can’t spend all your time worrying that some casual comment to your child is going to warp him for life. After all, saying “I really like that pie,” is a valid response. A major part of being a good cook is knowing what people like.

The trick is to develop habits. If you start by making a carefully-thought-out response once in a while, and suppressing an inappropriate one sometimes, soon you get good at it, and it becomes your standard habit.

Another trick is just improving your attitude. I often tell my students, "Don't do it because I said so. Do it because it's the right thing to do." I sometimes add, "If you don't think it's the right thing to do, we had better talk about it."

Tell your children this a few times, and listen to yourself carefully. Soon you'll start believing it.

One of the big mistakes you can make is to try to dump it on them all at once. A sudden change of direction from an authoritarian-type parent is simply going to be looked on with suspicion, and viewed from all angles to see what benefit can be gained.

Hey, I never said it was simple.

And some of you will have noticed; when you use criteria, you haven’t really lost any control at all. As long as you are the one setting the criteria, and your praise is genuinely judging success, you are still in charge. So don't worry. All we're doing here is trying to be better at what we do. Set some criteria for your own success, and see how well you succeed.

Next posting: Authority and obeying orders

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Acceptance vs Praise


What the motivational speaker I mentioned earlier (August 10: "Creating a Positive Self-Image") was missing in his philosophy, was the difference between acceptance and praise. Even between love and praise. Love should be unconditional. The moment you start putting conditions on love, you are trying to control the person you say you love.

“I love you because you are my child,” is the only possible message. There is no hidden agenda here. The child cannot possibly stop being your child, so you can never stop loving them. That is the consistency a child needs, the support the child must have, in order to mature and grow.

“I love you because you are pretty,” or “I love you because you are a great baseball player,” is controlling and, in the end, damaging to the child’s self-esteem. Why? because there is always a second half to those messages. The insecure child, and after all , we are all insecure to some extent, reads the other half of the message. “If I wasn’t pretty/a good athlete, then he wouldn’t love me.” You are creating fear of disproval, which is a great control technique for the authoritarian parent, but doesn’t create children with good self-esteem.

For the adult, unearned praise is the easy way out. It requires no prior knowledge, little time, and no attention. When you look at the picture and say, “Wow, that’s a beautiful doggy!” and the child says, “It’s a squirrel.” How do you feel? Embarrassed. And why should you feel embarrassed? Because you’ve been caught cheating. You have tried for the easy way out, and messed up, and on top of it all, you’re afraid you have hurt the child’s feelings. You probably haven’t, actually. He knows it doesn’t look much like a squirrel, and he’s quite happy to tell you all about it, if you give him the chance. If the child pretends to be hurt, he’s probably already playing your games. Well done. You have started him out on the wrong path at a very young age.

Next Posting: Encouraging high quality in your child's work, without using unearned praise.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

What is "Cool"?


Another aspect of the pecking order that fascinates children is the concept of what it means to be “cool”. Children spend a lot of thought, and an incredible amount of emotional energy, on this idea. It is one of the biggest motivators of social activity among children (also adults). It is also one of the most misunderstood social concepts children have to deal with. If children actually understand what it means to be "cool", they can concentrate their efforts in the proper direction, instead of wasting their time and energy on a false quest.

There was a popular song a few years ago which described a person as being “fashionably sensitive but too cool to care.” This is an interesting point, and it illustrates the dichotomy between who a cool person really is, and what the kids think is cool.

Because caring leaves you vulnerable, and kids see "cool" people as not being vulnerable, they conclude that someone who is "cool" is someone who doesn’t care. To create this image, they try to look tough and unfeeling. Unfortunately, many are successful at this, and are able to climb the pecking order on the basis of their pretended (or real) insensitivity. Their success does not make them happy people. Because they got to the top by fighting against others for their position, they always have to be worried about staying there.

If you look at the teenagers who are truly cool, the ones who are mature and confident, the ones who are looked up to as leaders, you will see that the popular image is right about one thing. The kids who are cool are less vulnerable. Where the popular image is wrong is in thinking that people who are cool don’t care about other people. People who are cool are free to care about other people, are free to be sensitive, because they truly don’t care.

They don’t care about the pecking order.

They aren’t always looking over their shoulders to see who is going to approve or disapprove of them, because their own self-image tells them who they are and what they should be doing.

I find discussion with children about this very useful, so that they are aware of the different types of “cool”.

Once again, it takes time. It’s the kind of thing you spend hours at, as a teacher or as a parent. You don’t want to sit down and talk about it for hours. Fifteen minutes or so, on a regular basis, makes a great deal of difference. For parents, it’s the kind of topic that you hit once in a while, sitting around the dinner table.

What? your family doesn’t sit around the dinner table? Well, you have a major problem. Statistics show that a high percentage of successful families, with happy, successful children, regularly sit down, all together, at the dinner table. In spite of hockey, figure skating, soccer, gymnastics, bridge night, and homework.

Do it. It’s fun.

Another way of looking at “cool” is to consider that self-confidence comes with maturity, and the "cool" children are just a bit more mature than the others in this respect. If you get the opportunity to work with a group of children who are truly "cool", you see them as calmer, more caring of each other, less concerned with the pecking order, and more focused on group objectives.

Actually, I think what I have just described is also a truly effective adult work environment.

I had a class once that had a fairly high percentage of “difficult” students. It was a disparate group, from a wide range of backgrounds. It included some trailer trash, some ignored rich kids, and a good sprinkling of positive, well-adjusted students. What made them different from other classes was that, to a greater degree than most, they bought into my program of de-emphasizing the pecking order.

One great result of this buy-in was that some of the more difficult boys who excelled at sports, forgot about being stars, and became focused on helping the weaker members of their team. This caused the ability level of the whole class to improve at a faster rate. The payoff for the good players was that the quality of play increased, so they had more fun. They could actually pass the ball to one of the weaker girls, and she wouldn’t immediately lose it to the other team.

Of course this meant that they passed more often, the weaker players got stronger, and the learning spiral rose steeply. This happened in a more subtle way in academic subjects, especially in cooperative projects, where the weaker academic students had more success. As you might suspect, if a smart girl has just been helped on the basketball court by an underachieving boy, she is much more likely to give him a chance to participate in a group activity in which she is the leader. The boy, who has given her credibility in a situation he feels is important, is much more likely to accept her leadership.

For me, the crowning glory was the school Christmas concert. The other teachers, and I suspect many of the students and parents, were absolutely amazed to see four of the toughest grade six boys on stage wearing tutus, dancing ballet. Needless to say, they brought down the house.

To my knowledge, those boys got nothing but positive responses, even from their peers. I told them they would be funny, they believed me, and they were. They bought into the program, they took a big risk, and they achieved success in a very public way. The boost to their self-esteem was fantastic, and it coloured the rest of their year in school. I’d like to think it had some effect on the rest of their lives. They had learned a slightly different way to be "cool".

The funny thing was, I had not been thinking of the effect of this performance on my position in the school. I had been focused on the objective, which was to make the performance as good as possible, and I was completely surprised at the reaction of the other teachers. As far as they were concerned, I had taken a big risk, one they wouldn’t have dared, and had left myself vulnerable to failure. So, when I succeeded, they thought it was pretty cool. From comments I picked up in succeeding years, I gather that performance did a lot for my position with both teachers and parents, and also gave credibility to the Arts in a school which was highly academic-oriented.

So everybody won.

If more adults and children had a better idea of what it means to be "cool", and if we could eliminate the idea that "cool" means unfeeling and uncaring, I think we would have a lot more truly cool kids.

Next Posting: The difference between acceptance and praise.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Self-Image and the Pecking Order

In any society in the higher-level animal kingdom, there is a natural hierarchy among the members, based on ability, skills, personality and (sorry, but it's true) gender. Because the phenomenon was first observed and studied in birds, it is often termed the pecking order.

It works like this. In the world of chickens, a bird pecks at any other bird to demonstrate dominance. In any group of, say, five chickens, there is one chicken who can peck at any other chicken, and the other will give in. This is the Number One chicken. There is another chicken who can freely peck at the three other chickens, but not Number One, because Number One will retailate. This is the Number Two chicken. Of course, there is one poor chicken, Number Five, that is pecked at by all the other chickens, has no other chicken to peck at, and is the bottom of the social scale.

Unfortunately, this concept rears its ugly head in human relations. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It just exists. On a basketball team, the weaker players feed the ball to the stronger players, and the team benefits. (It is up to the coaches and the stronger players to find the places where the weaker players can contribute their part, or the team becomes lopsided, loses cohesion, and ultimately fails.)

The problem with the pecking order is when it achieves exaggerated importance in the society, and especially in the individual’s self-image.

For example, in my PE classes, I play most games with homogeneous teams: some strong, some weak players on each team. However, I sometimes line the students up before dividing into teams and say, “Stronger players at this end of the line, weaker at that end, middles in the middle.”

Some people will be horrified at this, saying that it makes the weaker players feel inferior, and inflates the egos of the stronger players, and yada yada yada. However, I have always found that the children cheerfully, and mostly accurately, group themselves in the appropriate groups, because they know that they will be playing against others at their own ability level.

Note that this isn’t a social pecking order. It is a ranking by ability, and it is being used for practical purposes, not power purposes, and everybody benefits. The problems, especially in PE class, come when people get ranking by ability mixed up with social dominance.

Also, in this case they get to place themselves. If one of the middle players wants to work with the good players, he could put himself up near that end of the line. I sometimes move people “up” the line to challenge them, if I think they placed themselves with a weaker group (usually for social reasons).

The real problem comes when the pecking order gains too much importance in the self-image of the individual. It works like this:

Let’s say Mary is a very pretty little girl. She is always praised for being pretty. When she is young, Mary doesn’t know what pretty is. All she knows is that Mummy and Daddy think it’s wonderful when she…well, she isn't really sure. Since parental approval has great importance in any child’s life, Mary spends a great deal of effort figuring out what makes Mummy and Daddy so happy. She soon learns that if she is well-dressed and neat, and acts cute, they make a fuss over her. So she acts that way more and more.

However, as she grows up, she needs to develop her own self image. She needs to find ways of being proud of herself, not because of what Mummy and Daddy say, but because of what she knows herself as good and bad, right and wrong. If she is allowed to pass through this stage, still looking to Mummy and Daddy to tell her what is good, right, and pretty, she comes to depend on other people’s opinions too much, and have a lack in her own personal self -image.

This dependence on others for self-concept can lead to real problems. Because the child doesn’t really know what she did to achieve approval, as soon as another child shows up, she doesn’t know how to deal with that other child. She doesn’t know what the rules are, she can only see that other child as competition, in a game where she isn’t sure of the means to succeed. This creates an uncertain situation, and the other child is seen as the reason for the uncertainty. If Mary can find a way to demonstrate her superiority over the other child, then she feels better. So she spends her energy finding ways to demonstrate superiority over the other child. As she expands her social circle, she continues to learn how to exert dominance. She has discovered the pecking order.

Incidentally, when she thinks she’s too old to look to Mummy and Daddy for advice, she looks to her friends and to what she sees on TV, and what do we have? Presto! The teen fashion industry.

Another child, let’s call her Jane, who has developed her self-concept based on her own knowledge and abilities, will see other children differently. If placed with another child, she doesn't automatically see competition. If she does want adult attention, she knows what she can do. If she knows she had athletic ability, she will do athletic things. If she has learned that cooperation is good, she will try to cooperate with the other child. Poor Mary! All she can do is look pretty. Next thing you know, Mary will be pushing in front of Jane, perhaps roughly, so everyone can look at her. Then Mary gets in trouble, and she really doesn't know what's going on.

I do not explain any of this to children. However I do explain the pecking order. This is the part that really strikes a chord with the 9- to 12-year-olds.

The problem for a person who bases his self-concept on his place in the pecking order is that, like the chicken, he has to worry about maintaining it. He has to fight for his place, and, if everyone is like him, he has to realize that there is always a bunch below him fighting for his spot.

Face it, the bird who sits atop the pecking order is not a happy bird. He’s a bird always looking over his shoulder to see who is going to try to peck him off.

I get students to discuss how the pecking order works with friends. In general, people who are friends concern themselves very little with the pecking order. They have, through association, decided on what the order is, and they proceed to ignore it. Friends are comfortable with each other, because there is no social jostling. In fact, the pecking order between friends may reverse, depending on the activity. One may be braver, another may be more academic, another may be more athletic. Depending on the situation, a different person may be the leader at any different time. Even friends who have a strong imbalance, with one always being the acknowledged leader, are comfortable with each other, because they don’t have to be worrying about their places.

This is why three often becomes a crowd. It is easy to set a pecking order with two people. When you have three, the dynamics are three times as complicated. Not only are there more relationships to consider, but the possibility of using the power of the third person to swing against the other makes the pecking order more difficult to balance.

Psychologist Alfred Adler made some interesting observations about the pecking order in families. He postulated that the position in the family, relative to the other siblings, is so ingrained at an early age, that it shades the person’s social interactions for his whole life. An older child, who has grown up being the leader, will always be the leader, and does not feel comfortable if he is not the leader. The younger child, who has been the follower all his life, is happy being the follower, and will not fight so hard to become the leader. Don’t even ask about the middle child.

Again, this is not stuff you discuss with a nine-year-old. It’s enough for him to realize that, in some cases, people are doing things that make them feel more important than other people, and that usually this isn’t the best way for people to get along.

Also, when dealing with social bullies, bringing their tricks out in the open is a sure way to neutralize them. If you watch social bullies at work, you see that they are very aware that their manipulations are wrong, and they try to disguise their true motivation for what they are doing. A discussion of the pecking order makes them realize that they can't get away with this.

Next post: The Pecking Order and Being Cool

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Creating a Positive Self-Image

To review from my last post: without the extra details, that post said two things:

1. From birth, our self-image is developed through the way the world reacts to our actions, and our interpretation of those reactions.
2. A healthy maturing process allows independence and self-control over the individual's self-image.

So how do we raise children with a positive self-image?

The answer is in the second statement above. The trick is to find ways to allow the child to realize his own strengths and accept his own weaknesses.

The problem over the last 30 years or so is that people bought into the idea that a positive self-image could be created by praise alone, and that any criticism at all would destroy the positive self-image. This trend, combined with the natural desire of parents for their children to be perfect, has led to a group of children in our population who have not developed a mature self-esteem, and only know how to feel in control of their lives through bullying, drugs, self-mutilation, and eating disorders.

A few years ago, I attended a “motivational speaker”, who was entertaining a group of teachers. He was expounding his pet theory that everyone needed acceptance, and his solution to this problem was that any of us, at any time, should be able to stand up and say “I want acceptance.” and everyone in the room would then give this person a generous round of applause.

As he expounded this idea, I looked around at my fellow teachers. Many were just shaking their heads. When, a few minutes later, a gung-ho type jumped up and shouted, “I want acceptance,” there was dutiful applause, but more headshaking, and not a few grins.

What the teachers on the front line intuitively underestand is that praise which has not been earned is empty, and can even be destructive. They also realize that "acceptance" and "praise" are not the same thing.

The problem with unearned praise is this: it trains the child to look to others for a sense of accomplishment. The difficulty for the child is that he doesn’t know what he has done to earn the praise. So if he needs more praise, he doesn’t know what to do.

For example, a young child comes to you with a piece of art work, and you say “Wow, that is beautiful!” Unless it really is beautiful, you are doing the child no favours. All you are doing is demonstrating a lack of parenting skills.

In fact, if you consider that the child has brought the picture to you for some kind of judgment, you have already made your first mistake. The child should not be coming to you for approval, especially the kind of empty approval that an insincere response provides.

You might say “Wow, you worked really hard on that,” but only if you know the child did work hard on it. The problem for the parent, here, is that if you are to answer correctly, you have to have some knowledge of what the child has been doing. If the child worked for 15 minutes, or 5 minutes, you have to know it. If the work is better (or worse) than the child’s usual work, you should know. This, unfortunately, requires a certain amount of time and effort, and paying some attention to what your child is doing.

If your child comes to you with a picture, and you have no idea how much time and effort he put into it, then you have to be really careful what you say. You are better to ask him a question, and discuss the picture with him. It is not necessary to give a judgment, but there is nothing wrong with a judgment, if you know what you’re talking about.

So the child brings you a picture. If you don’t know what to say, tell him what you see. If you don’t know what something is, don’t be afraid to ask. It’s not going to crush his little ego permanently if you don’t recognize the squirrel as a squirrel. In fact, getting the child to talk about what’s in the picture is a good way of getting off the hook.

The point here is that the child can receive acceptance for his art work in many different ways. Your willingness to talk about the work is acceptance. You are giving the child your time and attention, which is what he really needs. You don’t have to tell him it’s wonderful, even if it is, and especially if it’s not. If you want to help him draw better, this is the time for a quick lesson. Make sure he knows something he can do to improve the picture, and make it something of which he is capable. Then, the next time he brings it to you, don't tell him what you think. Ask him if he thinks he achieved the improvement you discussed before. Ask him why. Then give him some more pointers, where he can go next.

The basic principle is this: If you want to create an independent, strong, child, with healthy self-esteem, set criteria the child can understand, give him accurate feedback on his accomplishments, and don’t praise him when he doesn’t deserve it.

If all this “criteria” and “feedback” stuff sounds overly academic, and you’re saying, ‘then when do I find a place to praise my child?” you have asked the right question. It takes some effort, and it takes some attention, but if you are there and watching, it is not hard to find a point where the child has done something worthy of praise. Remember the old teachers’ motto, “Catch them being good”. How often you praise depends on the child, but be sure it is deserved.

By the way, if you notice that a child seems to need praise a lot, be careful. Even if it is earned, an unusual need for praise shows dependence. Go back to the “what do you think?” response, to focus on the work, not the praiser.

Next posting: Self-Image and the Pecking Order

Friday, August 04, 2006

Developing a Self-image

From the Start

As a starting point for our discussion, let us look at the changing self-image of the developing child. His first discovery, when he is a few months old, is that his mother is something different from himself. He soon realizes that there are a whole lot of other people as well.

At about two years, he realizes that individuals have different agendas, and he can have his own. Hopefully, he soon learns that people cope with conflicting agendas by cooperation.

Around age five or six, he figures out that, just as he is starting to have opinions about others, the others must have opinions about him. It is not unusual to have a five-year-old who can stand up in front of an audience of strangers at a Speech Arts festival, and speak a poem comfortably. Come back the next year, and at the age of six the child is suddenly too shy to stand in front of the audience. During that year, this child has realized that he is a separate unit, and that all those other people are separate units as well, and that their ideas may differ from his. Some of them may even be critical of what he does.

Then, around age ten, he starts to notice the norms of social interaction, and see how his own experience matches. It is around this age that sexually abused children suddenly show behaviour changes. Before this, they did not understand what was happening to them, and they were not aware that their lives were abnormal. Once they become aware of social condemnation, they become more upset by their situation.

And all this time, the child is slowly forming an image of himself. How this image develops is one of the strongest factors influencing the rest of his life.

There is one basic way an organism, from a tadpole to a human, learns (if a tadpole can learn, and, having been a teacher, I'm not sure about some humans). The individual performs an action. It receives a response. It remembers that response, and adapts future actions because of that memory.

The self-image is developed through this learning process, over the child’s (and adult’s) life. Given the complexities of the human brain and society, there are three ways a child develops his self-image:
1. from the results of his actions, as described above,
2. from the reaction of those around him to his actions, which is simply the social side of the procedure mentioned above, and
3. from his understanding and interpretation of his own actions and accomplishments, which modify his perceptions of the world.

A simple example to illustrate how all three work together to develop self-image:

A child is goal keeper in a soccer game. The ball is kicked towards the goal. He grabs for the ball, and takes a hard blow to the solar plexus.

A child is playing with his soccer ball. A bully comes to take it away. The child tries to grab the ball, and the bully punches him, hard, in the solar plexus.

In both these instances, the child’s motivation for his action is the same, the resulting pain is the same. However, the result to his self-esteem is dramatically different, because of his perception of the situation.

You can imagine, in the first instance, the child lies there a moment, winded, holding the ball. The team responds with concern and admiration. The child, noting their support and his success, jumps to his feet, ready to play again. His self-image, due to both the reaction of his peers and his knowledge of his success, has been bolstered, in spite of the painful experience. The next time the ball comes near, the goalie will dive even harder, and thus become a better goal keeper, achieve more success in his own eyes and that of his peers, and thus become an even better goal keeper, and the spiral goes upwards.

In the second instance, the child lies on the ground, winded, without the ball. The other children look on silently in fear and pity. The child begins to cry, from the pain and the loss of the ball. His self-image, due to the pain and the reaction of the others, has been dealt a severe blow. The next time, the child will avoid the bully, and perhaps the other children. The child will give in more easily to the bully, and feel badly about it. He will perhaps learn that the only way to achieve power over the other children is to bully them, although he knows that this is wrong, so he feels badly, and the spiral goes down.

In both examples, the child’s interpretation of his action is influenced by the resulting feeling(in both cases pain), the reaction of his peers, and his interpretation of the success of his action. As he grows older, he will also develop a sense of the fairness of the situation, which is one of the strongest influences in later development of the self-image. Ask any parent of a teenager.

Independence and Maturity

It stands to reason that the younger a child is, the less independent in action and thought he will be. The development of an individual, independent self-image is intricately involved with the maturing process. The maturing process is a process of gradually gaining independence, through making choices, noting the results of those choices, including the reactions of others, and then deciding how to integrate that information into further decisions.

Healthy maturing is a process of slowly taking more and more control of our self-image, and the ways to develop and nurture it, and depending less and less on the reactions of others to influence our actions and how we feel about ourselves. And here is the nub of the problem.

Dependency and Immaturity

If the adults around him conspire to keep a child dependent on the opinions of parents and teachers, this delays that child’s control of his own self-image, and impedes his maturity. In severe cases, this can damage the child’s self-image to the point where it will never truly mature.

Which explains why we have so much childish behaviour in the adult population. Take a drive through the streets of any city during rush hour.

It is my premise that a self-image that is too strongly affected by others is a poorly-developed self-image. To create a healthy self-image, the child must be allowed the freedom to make choices and accept the consequences. This is a scary thought for many adults, especially the controlling ones, who are afraid to allow the child to make a mistake.

I recall one poor woman. I’m sure you know the type. She was always dressed perfectly, with impeccable makeup, not a hair out of place. She managed to get through a day working with children, without ever getting mussed or dirty. She once confided in me that she was so concerned with this perfection, that it affected the way she raised her family. She was so anxious that her children be perfect, she would ignore anything they did that was wrong. It certainly seemed not to be working. When one of her children ran seriously afoul of the law, nobody at the school was surprised. The sad part of it was that she was intelligent enough to know she was wrong, but her own self-image was so concerned with looking good, with seeming perfect to other people, that she couldn’t do anything about it.

By praising her looks and grooming, someone had made her too concerned with other people’s opinions. By ignoring her childrens’ bad behaviour, she was, in essence, praising it, and so it continued. By controlling her children, she did not allow them to mature, and so they made bad choices.

In my next posting, I will talk about creating a positive self-image.