Sunday, September 19, 2010

What I Am Is...


I think this might be my new theme song. I know it was written for Sesame Street, but I can't stop listening to it. It's catchy, just puts a smile on my face and I love the sentiments expressed: "I will always be the best me I can be...there's nothing I can't achieve because in myself I believe". 

I think that, as parents, we all have the goal of giving our children a sense of self-worth and confidence. How this is accomplished isn't always clear to us though. It has recently been suggested that our natural instincts to praise our children's every accomplishment may, in fact, have the opposite effect we intend. This excerpt from "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children" is titled The Inverse Power of Praise and one of the main points the researchers make is that simply praising a young child for being "smart" can actually be crippling as he then becomes afraid to push himself for fear of no longer being thought of as smart; whereas praising effort in a child actually encourages them to do (and enjoy doing) things they might possibly fail at because they believe what matters is how hard they try. 
"Dweck [the researcher] had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. "Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control," she explains. "They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child's control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure."
As with any parenting research I think it's important to use common sense; of course it's OK to tell your kids they're smart now and then (and frankly, as a proud mom, it's hard not to); but I do believe strongly in the power of praising effort over intelligence, just as I believe it is more helpful to comment on a child's painting with questions about and descriptions of what you see, as opposed to a simple "oh, that's so beautiful". The former expands their thinking, your child learns nothing from the latter except that, perhaps, their next picture might not be "beautiful". 

Author and lecturer, Alfie Kohn, takes aim at a phrase parents (me included) seem to use with our children at every turn; "Good Job!" is exclaimed for every accomplishment from taking those first steps to pooping in the toilet. His article, "Five Reasons To Stop Saying Good Job", brings up some very interesting research and concepts for those who look at this comment as simply a way to encourage our children. 
"The more we say, "I like the way you…." or "Good ______ing," the more kids come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval...Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. Alas, that’s often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise."
Our kids: confident and self-assured
And so how do we bring up children who "in [themselves] believe" as Elmo and friends sing? Recent research points towards raising a child's "emotional intelligence". Emotional Intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions (both in oneself and in others). The thinking goes that the more one is able to recognize and understand their own emotions, the better able they are to deal with things like frustration, sadness, anger; and the more one can do this, the happier one is in their own skin. To me, this makes sense and I love the idea that our children would grow up more resilient because they are not simply flooded with feelings they don't understand. Additionally, the more they are able to read the emotions of others the better able they are to connect, form relationships, succeed in the workplace and so forth. Yes, emotional intelligence sounds like something worth increasing! So....how do we do it?
  • I am a big believer in labeling and describing things for our children. I really try to pay attention to what is going on for them, guess what they may be feeling in a particular instance and then label the emotions for them. 
  • I also try to label my own emotions as they're happening (mommy is feeling really frustrated, mommy is nervous, mommy is excited etc.); this gives them the language to express themselves and to begin to understand what they're experiencing. It also helps them understand that grownups have big feelings too. Children have the same emotions we do, the only difference is that we have more practice at regulating them.
  • Be sure to give them a rich vocabulary of words, not just "good" and "bad", and do this from very early on; baby talk isn't helping anyone. 
  • Additionally, helping them to connect the consequences of their actions to how it makes others feel has been quite helpful ("Do you see her face? How do you think she feels when you do that?"). 
  • Help them see that talking about feelings is a good thing by expanding on their questions when they ask a question like "why is that boy crying"; ask them what they think might have happened, what are reasons that people cry, what feelings do you have when you cry and so on. 
  • When you discipline, focus on teaching coping skills as opposed to extinguishing the behavior; as therapist and parent educator Dr. Pamela Varady says, by teaching your children empathy, conflict resolution, delayed gratification and responsibility for choices you "get to say goodbye to the unappealing jobs parents unwittingly assume: cop, judge and jury, and say hello to the pleasurable and rewarding job of [becoming] our children's emotional coach".
  • Really try to tune in to your children; feeling "felt" is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone else. It also is a sure-fire way to calm a tantrum or a meltdown. 
  • I love the new website The Mother Company and their concept for teaching children about feelings. They have a delightful group of videos, a new DVD coming out and even a "happy song" recorded by the wonderful Elizabeth Mitchell. Check The Mother Company out, they're really on to something!
Aristotle understood the idea of emotional intelligence when he was famously quoted: "Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy". And he was right, it's not easy; but it can be within everybody's power, with some effort it can be learned. And what about that video at the top of this page? It makes me chuckle to think that someone named Will.i.am wrote a song called "What I Am"; there's a certain level of emotional intelligence at work there. 

Thanks for reading!
-Gina
The Twin Coach

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3 Great Comments Made By Clicking Here!:

Mia said...

Just when I thought your posts couldn't get any better you blog about Emotional Intelligence! I may only have two singletons but I find your blog very useful and I look forward to your insightful, thoughtful and intelligent posts! In keeping with this entry, The Echo Center is a wonderful resource for parenting classes with the philosophy of empathetic parenting and being your child's emotional coach. Gina, keep 'em coming!

Karen said...

HI Gina
Somwhere along the way I learned about labeling-but always forget it so thank you for the reminder!
But- it's sooo helpful when I do remember it.
IE- My son was angry when he came out of his classroom and I asked what happened. He told me he was only able to ring the bell once at snack time instead of twice. I knelt down and hugged him and said, "you must be frustrated that you only got to ring it once when you expected to be able to ring it twice. That's disappointing." After a good sob and hug, we sat down and discussed how he could tell his teachers why he was frustrated about it..and voila! all was happy again.

I also loved this from your post:
focus on teaching coping skills as opposed to extinguishing the behavior

That's so helpful- I'm going to work on that.

Fabulous article! Thank you.

The Twin Coach said...

Hi Karen! I love how you were able to connect with you son after that incident at school. It's amazing how much information you can get when you help them label what they're feeling. I know I always feel SO good when my husband just "gets" how I feel, as opposed to when he tries to fix things for me. I try to hold that in my mind when I'm dealing with my kids. SO glad you liked the article!
-Gina

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