A mother once came to see me because she and her nine year-old son “Brian” were constantly fighting. She confided in me that she stopped using positive reinforcement as a parenting tool because “every time I give him a compliment he rolls his eyes at me. He just hates it.”
I asked her for an example of how she praises her son. “Oh I don’t know… great job staying in your seat, good work listening, that kind of stuff.”
It seemed pretty reasonable to me.
But then I met Brian.
He sat calmly across from me and carried on the conversation with an easy confidence that a teenager would envy. He was interested in computers, and spent some time asking me questions about the computer in my office. He negotiated with me to look at it after we talked. When we started talking about what was happening at home he summed up the situation this way, “mom talks to me like I’m a baby. I really want her to stop.”
After a little bit of work with the family, the mom began focusing her positive attention on things that were more developmentally appropriate for Brian. Given his penchant for negotiation, Brian agreed to shrug it off when mom missed the mark with her praise. Soon, the fights stopped.
The Moving Target of Child Development
To avoid what happened with Brian and his mom, it is helpful to know what developmental tasks children experience as they grow, and match how you praise to the task. Below is a rough sketch of some of the kinds of developmental tasks kids go through up to age thirteen.
Roughly speaking, toddlers and preschoolers are attempting to gain a measure of independence from adults (which is why they love saying “No!”). They are also attempting to learn the basics about basic things, like how paper folds, or whether a bowl of cereal bounces when it is thrown from a highchair. Curiosity, and a total lack of foresight, are their constant companions. They are also trying to do things for themselves, and this is one of the reasons they try to so rudely grab whatever you have, whether it is a toy or an operating belt sander. The refrain “let me do it!” is familiar at this age. It’s helpful to focus praise on instances in which the child puts effort into gaining independence appropriately and discovering how things work safely (“I like how you asked for that,” “great job doing it gently yourself”).
Kindergartners and kids in early primary school are gaining mastery of basic skills like staying in a group, respecting personal space, sticking with a project until it is finished, listening, answering basic questions, motor coordination, and the norms of speech and language. A common refrain at this age is “look at what I can do!.” It is a great idea to watch what kind of basic things your child is trying to accomplish and focus praise on their effort (“great job stacking those blocks so carefully,” “you worked hard to make that”).
Primary school children are the social norm and rule enforcers, and are trying to gain mastery of shoulds and shouldn’ts. They are obsessed with fairness and are trying to take into consideration the bigger picture (though that isn’t easy even for grownups). Focus your praise on things like being considerate, sharing, remembering the rules in different places, making room for others, being kind, noticing how others feel, etc.
Tweens and young teens experience a resurgence of the preschool need for independence, though this time it isn’t “no” that you hear, but “let’s negotiate.” It is important to understand that no matter what the child says he wants (a new skateboard, extra ice cream, a sleepover, etc.) what he really wants is the negotiation itself – and that is a good thing. Many parents get frustrated by the constant negotiation and feel sick of having to always explain why they won’t do something. But if you understand that it is the process of give and take that is important to the child’s development, and not winning the negotiation, you can approach it with much more patience. Praising kids for expressing their point of view and thinking hard about the what and why of rules is very helpful. At this stage of development kids are also drifting away from the obsession with fairness, and beginning to focus on the reciprocal complexities of social groups and friendships. Most parents complain that this is when the drama begins. Friends start and stop being best friends. Rejection and acceptance are big themes at this age. Focusing praise on being loyal, considerate, inclusive, standing up against bullying and social rejection, and setting appropriate boundaries with others is helpful.
This description of tasks is woefully incomplete, and is pretty broad, but I hope that it gives you some sense of the kinds of changes kids go through. It is important to remember that the movement from one set of tasks to the next is not the same for each child. Development is not an all-or-none proposition. Kids can struggle with some tasks from multiple stages.
So, to tell you something you already know, raising kids is complicated.
But it can help make things simpler if you use this rule of thumb: praise the things that matter to the child. Conveniently, those are usually the things that have to do with their current developmental task.
Praising according to development shows the child not only that he is supported, it shows that he is understood. Your child will intuitively grasp that you get it. And that kind of validation, paired with effective praise, is very powerful.
Got questions? Contact Dr. Ron for a FREE consult!