The Power of Words
An Excerpt from Between Parent and Child
Written by Haim G. Ginott
Edited by Alice Ginott and H. Wallace Goddard
Better Ways to Encourage and Guide
In psychotherapy, a child is never told, “You are a good little boy.” “You are great.” Judgmental and evaluative praise is avoided. Why? Because it is not helpful. It creates anxiety, invites dependency, and evokes defensiveness. It is not conducive to self-reliance, self-direction, and self-control, qualities that demand freedom from outside judgment. They require reliance on inner motivation and evaluation. Children need to be free from the pressure of evaluative praise so that others do not become their source of approval.
Isn’t Praise Good for Children Anymore?
Sometimes misbehavior comes at the most unexpected times.
It was Monday morning after the Thanksgiving weekend. The family was in the car driving home from Pittsburgh to New York. In the back of the car, Ivan, age six, behaved like an angel, quiet and deep in thought. His mother said to herself, He deserves some praise. They were just entering the Lincoln Tunnel when she turned to him and said, “You are such a good boy, Ivan. You behaved so well. I am proud of you.”
A minute later Ivan pulled out an ashtray and spilled its contents all over his parents. The ashes and cigarette butts kept coming, like an atomic fallout. The family was in the tunnel, in heavy traffic, and were choking. Ivan’s mother could have killed him. What upset her most was that she had just praised him. Isn’t praise good for children anymore?, she asked herself.
Weeks later Ivan himself revealed the cause of the explosion. All the way home he had been wondering how he could get rid of his younger brother, who was snuggled up between his mother and father in the front of the car. Finally the idea occurred to him that if their car were jackknifed in the middle, he and his parents would be safe, but the baby would be cut in two. Just then his mother had congratulated him on his goodness. The praise made him feel guilty, and he wanted desperately to show that he did not deserve it. He looked around, saw the ashtray, and the rest had followed instantly.
Doing Something Well Does Not Turn You Into a Good Person
Most people believe that praise builds up children’s confidence and makes them feel secure. In actuality, praise may result in tension and misbehavior. Why? Many children have, from time to time, destructive wishes about members of their family. When parents tell a child, “You are such a good boy,” he may not be able to accept it because his own picture of himself is quite different. In his own eyes, he cannot be “good” when only recently he wished that his mother would disappear or that his brother would spend next weekend in the hospital. In fact, the more he is praised, the more he misbehaves in order to show his “true self.” Parents frequently report that just after praising children for good behavior, they start to act wild, as though to disprove their compliment. It is possible that misbehaving is the child’s way of communicating private reservations about a public image.
It is not unusual for children who are praised for being smart, to become less likely to take on challenging learning tasks since they do not want to risk their high standing. In contrast, when children are praised for their efforts, they become more persistent in difficult tasks.
Desirable and Undesirable Praise
Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines-rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions. There are similar regulations about the administration of emotional medicine as well. The single most important rule is that praise deal only with children’s efforts and accomplishments, not with their character and personality.
When a child cleans up the yard, it is only natural to comment on how hard she has worked, and on how good the yard looks. It is highly unrelated, and inappropriate, to tell her what a good person she is. Words of praise should mirror for the child a realistic picture of her accomplishments, not a distorted image of her personality.
The following example illustrates desirable praise: Julie, age eight, worked hard to clean up the yard. She raked the leaves, removed the garbage, and rearranged the tools. Mother was impressed and expressed her appreciation of her efforts and achievements:
mother: The yard was so dirty. I didn’t believe it could be cleaned up in one day.
julie: I did it!
mother: It was full of leaves and garbage and things.
julie: I cleaned it all up.
mother: You put in a lot of effort!
julie: Yeah, I sure did.
mother: The yard is so clean now; it is a pleasure to look at it.
julie: It’s nice.
mother: Your beaming face tells me how proud you are. Thank you,
julie (with a mile-wide smile): You’re welcome.
Her mother’s words made Julie feel glad of her efforts and proud of her accomplishments. That evening she could not wait for her father to come home in order to show him the cleaned-up yard and again to feel within herself the pride of a task well done.
In contrast, the following words of praise addressed to the child’s personality are unhelpful:
“You are such a wonderful daughter.”
“You are truly Mother’s little helper.”
“What would Mother do without you?”
Such comments may threaten a child and cause her anxiety. She may feel that she is far from being wonderful and that she is unable to live up to this label. So, instead of fearfully waiting to be exposed as a fraud, she may decide to lessen her burden immediately by a confession of misbehavior. Direct praise of personality, like direct sunlight, is uncomfortable and blinding. It is embarrassing for a person to be told that she is wonderful, angelic, generous, and humble. She feels called upon to deny at least part of the praise. Publicly, she cannot stand up and say, “Thank you, I accept your words that I am wonderful.” Privately, too, she must reject such praise. She cannot honestly say to herself, I am wonderful. I am good and strong and generous and humble. She may not only reject the praise but may have some second thoughts about those who have praised her: If they find me so great, they cannot be so smart.
Learning the Process of Praise
Praise consists of two parts: what we say to children and what they in turn say to themselves.
Our words should state clearly what we like and appreciate about their effort, help, work, consideration, creation, or accomplishments. Our words should be framed so that a child will almost inevitably draw from them a realistic conclusion about his or her personality. Our words should be like a magic canvas upon which children cannot help but paint a positive picture of themselves.
Kenny, age eight, helped his father fix up the basement. In the process he had to move heavy furniture.
father: The workbench is so heavy. It is hard to move.
kenny (with pride): But I did it.
father: It takes a lot of strength.
kenny (flexing his muscles): I am strong.
In this example, Kenny’s father commented on the difficulty of the task. It was Kenny himself who drew the inference about his personal power. Had his father said, “You are so strong, Son,” Kenny might have replied, “No, I am not. There are stronger boys than I in my class.” A fruitless, if not bitter, argument might have followed.
We usually praise our children when we want them to feel better about themselves. Why is it then that, when we say to our daughter, “You’re beautiful!” she denies it. Why is it that, when we say to our son, “You’re brilliant,” he gets embarrassed and walks away? Is it that our children are so difficult to please that even praise does not help? Of course not. What is more likely is that our children, like most people, do not respond to words of praise that assess their personality or physical and mental attributes. Children do not like to be evaluated.
How would any of us feel if, at the end of each month, the person who claims to love us handed us an evaluation? “In kissing you get an A but in hugging you only get a B; in loving, on the other hand, you get an A1.” We would be upset and feel degraded. We would not feel loved.
There is a better way: description that details delight and admiration, words that convey recognition of effort, and statements that transmit respect and understanding.
June, age thirteen, was alone in the house one evening when a burglar attempted to break in. She tried to call the neighbors, but no one answered. She then called the police.
When her parents returned home, they found a policeman taking testimony from June. Both Mother and Father were impressed with the mature manner that June handled the frightening incident.
But they did not praise her by telling her what a remarkable girl she was, nor how mature she was. Instead, they talked about the situation and described to her in detail and with great appreciation her effective behavior.
June’s father said to her: “The way you acted fits Hemingway’s definition of courage: ‘Grace under pressure.’ How impressive to see a thirteen-year-old keep her cool and in a hot situation, do what needs to be done to protect herself, call a neighbor, then call the police and give the necessary details. Your mom and I are filled with respect for you.”
June listened as she started to relax. A big smile formed on her face and then she said: “I guess you can say that I’m learning to cope with life.”
Because of her parents’ response, June did not complain about being left alone. On the contrary, she came out of a frightening situation feeling more competent.
Here’s another example: Lester’s mother spent an afternoon watching her son play soccer. After the game, wanting to share with her son her appreciation of his skill and his accomplishment, she described in detail what impressed her: “It was such a pleasure to watch you play soccer this afternoon, especially the last ten seconds when you saw an opportunity to score. You ran all the way down to the other end of the field from your defensive position and set up the winning goal. You must be so proud!”
She added “You must be so proud” because she wanted him to develop an inner pride.
A father asked his six-year-old daughter, Jennifer, to help him pile the leaves after he had raked them. When they were finished, the father pointed to the piles and said, “One, two, three, four, five, six! Six piles in thirty minutes! How did you ever manage to work so fast?” That evening as Jennifer was saying good night to her father, she asked, “Daddy, can you tell me again about my piles?”
It takes effort to be specific and descriptive in our praise. Children benefit from the information and appreciation much more than when we evaluate their character.
George’s mother left this note on her son’s guitar: “Your playing gives me great pleasure.” Her son was delighted. “Thanks for saying what a good player I am.” He translated his mother’s appreciation into a statement that sang his praise.
Praise can also be discouraging. It depends on what the child says to herself after she is praised.
When twelve-year-old Linda arrived at the third level of her videogame, her father exclaimed, “You’re great! You have perfect coordination! You’re an expert player.” Linda lost interest and walked away. Her father’s praise made it difficult for her to continue because she said to herself, “Dad thinks I’m a great player, but I’m no expert. I made the third level by luck. If I try again, I may not even make the second level. It is better to quit while I’m ahead.” It would have been more helpful for her father to simply observe, “It must feel great to reach a new level.”
The following examples further illustrate this point:
Helpful praise: Thank you for washing the car; it looks new again.
Possible inference: I did a good job. My work is appreciated.
(Unhelpful praise: You are an angel.)
Helpful praise: I liked your get-well card. It was so pretty and witty.
Possible inference: I have good taste. I can rely on my choices.
(Unhelpful praise: You are always so considerate.)
Helpful praise: Your poem spoke to my heart.
Possible inference: I am glad I can write poems.
(Unhelpful praise: You are a good poet for your age.)
Helpful praise: The bookcase that you built looks beautiful.
Possible inference: I am capable.
(Unhelpful praise: You are such a good carpenter.)
Helpful praise: Your letter brought me great joy.
Possible inference: I can bring happiness to others.
(Unhelpful praise: You are an excellent writer.)
Helpful praise: I appreciate greatly your washing the dishes today.
Possible inference: I am responsible.
(Unhelpful praise: You did a better job than anyone.)
Helpful praise: Thanks for telling me that I overpaid you. I appreciate it very much.
Possible inference: I’m glad I was honest.
(Unhelpful praise: You are such an honest child.)
Helpful praise: Your composition gave me several new ideas.
Possible inference: I can be original.
(Unhelpful praise: You write well for your grade. Of course, you still have a lot to learn.)
Such descriptive statements and children’s positive conclusions are the building blocks of mental health. What they conclude about themselves in response to our words, children later restate silently to themselves. Realistic positive statements repeated inwardly by children determine to a large extent their good opinion of themselves and of the world around them.
Excerpted from Between Parent and Child byDr. Haim G. Ginott Revised and Updated by Dr. Alice Ginott and Dr. H. Wallace Goddard Copyright 2003 by Dr. Haim G. Ginott Revised and Updated by Dr. Alice Ginott and Dr. H. Wallace Goddard. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
2003Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.