Perhaps Freud said it best over a century ago: a healthy person is able to work and love. This is pretty much what parents want for their children (along with simply surviving childhood): to grow up to be able to work and achieve, and to be caring, decent people. Fortunately, by now there is quite a bit of research on how to help our kids get there. Here are some of the key strategies that work.
1. To promote achievement, praise the effort/behavior, not the talent/result.
The problem with praising a child for being smart or for achieving a good outcome is that doing so can actually decrease the child’s motivation (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). A child who is praised for achieving good outcomes due to intelligence or talent may come to rely on “the easy A” and fail to develop good work habits or resilience in the face of frustration. And persistence will take you farther in life than intelligence alone (Duckworth & Gross, 2014). It’s better to praise the child’s efforts, whether or not success was achieved in a given instance. So “Wow, you really hung in there!” is more effective than, “Great job!” This reinforces the effort and persistence that not only leads to easy achievements, but also to more difficult ones.
2. To promote ethical/caring behavior, praise the child’s (related) quality, not the behavior.
On the other hand, praising a positive/caring behavior is actually not the most effective way to reinforce the behavior. It’s more effective to suggest that the child is a certain type of person (associated with the behavior). This encourages the child to self-identify as that type of person, making the behavior more likely (e.g., Grusec & Redler, 1980). In other words, saying “Thank you for helping,” is not as effective as saying, “You’re such a good helper!”
It works the same way for discouraging negative behaviors. For example, “Don’t cheat” is not as effective as “Don’t be a cheater” (Bryan, Adams, & Monin, 2013). Again, playing to the child’s self-concept is more powerful than focusing directly on the behavior.
3. To discourage negative/harmful behaviors, inspire guilt, not shame.
The difference between guilt and shame is big and important (Tangney, 1995). A child who feels shame believes s/he is a bad person, and reacts by avoiding and shutting down. Shame is destructive. A child who feels guilt, on the other hand, believes s/he is a good person who has done wrong. Guilt also feels bad, but at least it has the potential to activate the child to try to do better.
Shame can be inspired by telling the child s/he is bad, by saying that the child “always” or “never” does [the behavior], by comparing the child unfavorably to some other “good” child, threatening, withdrawing love, or by yelling (Eisenberg, 2000). Guilt can be inspired by expressing disappointment in the child’s behavior, which implies an expectation of better; parents can also explain how the problem behavior affected others, and how the situation can be rectified (Eisenberg, 2000; Shaffer, 2008). So “You never pay attention!” is shame-inducing and destructive, whereas, “I was really counting on you to be more careful” is guilt-inducing and constructive.
4. Use rewards (if necessary) to create a new behavior, and praise to maintain it.
In general, it’s best to avoid the use of rewards for specific behaviors; the risk is that the child will only do the behaviors when the rewards are provided, and not otherwise (e.g., Warneken & Tomasello, 2008). Praise does not carry that risk, and is still reinforcing, so praise is the safer strategy.
It’s still okay to use incentives on occasion, particularly to help the child to try extra-hard for a brief period, to acquire a new skill or habit. For example, many parents will provide rewards during toilet training. However, using incentives well, and avoiding the pitfalls, can be tricky (Greenwald, 2005), so it’s safest to only use incentives on a short-term basis to help a child get “over the hump” to a new type of habit or behavior.
5. Set a good example.
While parental example alone is not sufficient to raise children who know how to work and to love, it is still essential. Remember, children are more likely to do what you do than what you say they should do (e.g., Bleakley, Jordan, & Hennessy, 2013; Rushton, 1975). This is one reason why yelling at a child to quiet down teaches the child to be noisy; and spanking a child as a punishment for aggression actually fosters aggression (another reason is that yelling or spanking induce shame). Similarly, the admonishment to be kind may not teach kindness, whereas the parent’s example of kindness will do so.
1. This post was inspired by some excellent articles I have read online in the past year, most notably these:
2. In case you’re wondering why a parenting strategies post is on a trauma blog... Our comprehensive trauma-informed treatment approach addresses trauma, but not to the exclusion of other aspects of therapy. We routinely work with parents to help their children do better in a variety of ways relevant to the presenting problems and to the therapy goals.
Bleakley, A., Jordan, A. B., & Hennessy, M. (2013). The relationship between parents’ and children’s television viewing. Pediatrics, 132, 364-371.
Bryan, C. J., Adams, G. S., & Monin, B. (2013). When cheating would make you a cheater: Implicating the self prevents unethical behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 1001-1005.
Duckworth, A.L., & Gross, J.J. (2014). Self-control and grit: Related but separable determinants of success. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 319-325.
Eisenberg, N. (2000). Emotion, regulation, and moral development. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 665-697.
Greenwald, R. (2005). Child trauma handbook: A guide for helping trauma-exposed children and adolescents. New York: Haworth.
Grusec, J. E., & Redler, E. (1980). Attribution, reinforcement, and altruism: A developmental analysis. Developmental Psychology, 16, 525-534.
Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
Rushton, J. P. (1975). Generosity in children: Immediate and long-term effects of modeling, preaching, and moral judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 459-466.
Shaffer, D. R. (2008). Social and personality development. Boston: Cengage Learning.
Tangney, J. P. (1995). Recent advances in the empirical study of shame and guilt. American Behavioral Scientist, 38, 1132-1145.
Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2008). Extrinsic rewards undermine altruistic tendencies in 20-month-olds. Developmental Psychology, 44, 1785-1788.
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