The Tyranny of Saying “Good Job”: Parenting Without Borders, Part 4

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we’ll take a closer look at self-esteem in the context of parenting.

If you have kids or you’ve been around kids, I feel pretty confident in making the assumption that when your kid (or the kids you happen to be around at the time) do/does something well, you almost reflexively say, “Good job!” Of course, though — why wouldn’t we? We notice someone doing something well and we want to praise that, right? Well, it turns out that this might not be the optimal way of interacting with our little ones:

It turns out that when parents and educators send children the message that their needs and their individual happiness and dreams are more important than other things, like being a compassionate, ethical, hard-working person, it makes them unhappy.

I think that we can all agree that it’s probably a good idea that our children grow up to be compassionate, ethical, and hard-working, right? Not to mention, happy. It appears that somewhere along the way, parents got the idea that the best way to achieve these ends were to focus on a child’s self-esteem by telling him how good they are. As it happens, this may have been a perversion of the initial way of thinking about parenting and self-esteem:

But the earliest proponents of raising self-esteem to ensure children have a successful, productive future actually believed this could be done best through a child-rearing style that employed clear rules and limits. Research backs this up: it is parents who allow children freedom and independence within clearly set guidelines, while treating children with respect and love (as opposed to being top-down dictators) who tend to raise confident adults.

One of the best parts about the book Parenting Without Borders is that it give the reader a flavour of different cultures. And when it comes to this chapter, that’s very helpful. In North America, we’re used to focusing on individual happiness and to instill that in our kids, we often tell them how well they’re doing. This has the effect of kids thinking that they’re great. You might expect a child raised in North America to say, “I’m awesome!” If an American kid were to ask a Japanese kid how to say, “I’m awesome,” in Japanese, the Japanese kid would be dumbfounded, as this isn’t something that a Japanese kid would even think to say. Consider this:

Students reflect frequently, especially after a big event, like the annual sports day, or a field trip, or a class presentation, but also after more ordinary moments. On many class handouts our kids received at school, there was a space to write down, “what I can do better next time; what I’ll try to work harder on next time.” Children are taught the habit of always remaining attentive to how they can improve. (By contrast, children in our country are typically asked to reflect on what they did well.)

There’s even a word for this process of self-reflection in Japanese: hansei. How great that at such a young age, kids are learning how to reflect on their process. It’s almost like taking the scientific method and reappropriating it. Can you imagine how different American culture would be if every kid in America were taught to think about how they could have done better on an assignment rather than being giving the customary, “Good job, let’s go out for ice cream,” speech.

Now, I understand that some parents will balk at the idea of not telling their kid how well they’re doing and that’s not what I’m saying (nor is it what the author is saying). However, it’s important to consider the ramifications of our decisions to praise our kids, especially as it relates to labels that they then have to live up to:

A child who is told he is very smart, will begin to define himself through this label. While this sounds like it would be a good thing, even so-called positive labels can be harmful when they give a child a fixed view of himself, since it is a view he must protect.

[…]

 

What a lot of parents don’t see is what happens when we boost our kids too much. If we let “making kids feel good” be our guiding principle, we are buying short-term goodwill at the expense of their future resilience.

In this way, telling our kids that they are smart isn’t so much a nice thing to do as it is a curse. Telling them how smart they are might handcuff them to this label that they have to continually live up to. Not that we want to handcuff our children to labels, but might it better for them and for others if we handcuff them to labels that have them perpetuate actions of compassion and ethics?

Maybe it’s as Gross-Loh alludes to that telling kids how smart they are has more to do with how we feel. Maybe telling our kids they’re smart has to do with us wanting our kids to like us. Gross-Loh has certainly given us a lot to think about in this chapter, but before I close this post, I wanted to leave you with something else that can be done. That is, instead of telling our kids, “Good job,” what else can we say?

Dweck’s research shows, a good parent doesn’t undermine her child’s motivation through empty praise and encouragement. She scaffolds her child’s ability to face challenges and even accept failure as something that anyone can grow from.

So, instead of focusing on the outcomes and the end goal, maybe it might be better if we focus on the effort and the steps that our children take to get from A to Z.

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4 responses to “The Tyranny of Saying “Good Job”: Parenting Without Borders, Part 4

  1. Pingback: The Tyranny of Saying, “Be Careful”: Parenting Without Borders, Part 5 | Jeremiah Stanghini

  2. Pingback: Overscheduling Kids Negatively Affects Development: Parenting Without Borders, Part 6 | Jeremiah Stanghini

  3. Pingback: Confucianism and the Drive for Self-Cultivation: Parenting Without Borders, Part 7 | Jeremiah Stanghini

  4. Pingback: Children are Finland’s Most Precious Resource: Parenting Without Borders, Part 8 | Jeremiah Stanghini

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