Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Even More Praise vs Encouragement

Apparently, I can't let this particular topic go. It's supposed to be Sense of Humor week!

I remembered that one of my readers brought the article "Praise Your Child's Thinking" to my attention a couple months ago, and I intended to comment on it at the time. I kept pushing it to the back burner, and now I'm bringing it up front! (Thanks, Travis!)

I have two issues with the ideas in this article. The first is the use of the word "praise." At the end of the article, the author talks about acknowledging the child's thinking efforts, and the examples she gives in the article are definitely encouraging, not praising. So this is a minor point, really.

The other issue I have goes back to something we were talking about in the comments of my post from the other day. I'm not sure if it was the author's intent to say that we ought to encourage children's thinking more than their other pursuits; but I can see how it's tempting for a parent who values rationality to be overly encouraging/praising of intellectual efforts. It's the issue that comes with valuing something quite a bit and wanting our kids to value it, too. There's a danger in overplaying your hand, I think.

Thinking is its own reward, even for children. Children may want some feedback or acknowledgment about it from their parents, and will need some guidance. But in this area in particular, I think parents should be very careful about how--and how often--we provide encouraging feedback to our kids.

I don't treat my children's thinking efforts any differently than I would any of their other efforts. So that means, sometimes I will offer feedback and encouraging words if it seems like the child needs that from me. But most of the time, I really just don't say anything, stand back, and let the child experience what happens when they put forth an effort of thought.

Again, this is to avoid giving them the idea that they ought to figure out a certain problem simply because I want them to. If they solve an intellectual problem, they will feel good about that. If they ask me what I think about it, then I'll say something encouraging or acknowledge their effort, such as "What an accomplishment!" or "I knew you could figure it out!" If they are stuck and need encouragement, I'll express my confidence in them, or maybe ask open-ended questions that will point them in the right direction. Or we'll look up the answer together. Or I'll answer their question. But I try never to get between them and their thinking if I can help it, and only will do it when they ask me (in words or deeds) for help.

The reward for me is seeing the delight on their faces when they've made a mental connection. Yesterday, Ryan came out with "Mom, the idea of 'negative zero' doesn't make any sense." And went on to count, in proper order, from -10 up to 10. He was so pleased with himself, and while we had some further conversation about the nature of zero and talked about some simple equations with it, I didn't really encourage his thinking in so many words. My actions--taking an interest in his idea and discussing it with him--certainly showed encouragement. But he really didn't need me to say anything more about it, and after our brief discussion, he went back into his head in (rare) silent contemplation.

I know we will have future chances to discuss these math ideas, and build on them. But in that moment, it was his thought, his intellectual development, his effort. And I saw no need to insert myself into that moment by saying anything apart from answering his few followup questions. I don't think it would have been necessarily wrong if I had said "Wow! You figured that out all by yourself?" Because I do that sometimes. But many times, I don't say anything at all, and just let him experience the moment independently of anything--even something positive--I might say.

In other news, I have been having a harder time than I would have imagined putting my sense of humor into action! It's hard to do, you know, when you're feeling really annoyed! But this morning, we played a clean up game that involved racing against the timer and military formations. Except for Pvt. Sean, who didn't think the General ought to put him down for a second, it was a successful game. We cleaned AND laughed. And that was way more fun for all of us than listening to me nag. :o)

1 comment:

Travis N said...

Nice post, Jenn. I pointed the article out to you because I thought it was mixed, and thought you'd have helpful things to say about it. You did, so I'm happy to take credit for your good work here! =b

The only thing I might disagree with in your post is whether the praise/encouragement issue is a minor terminological one. I think the author of the article maybe has some wrong premises that make her think that all we can do is "condition" a child positively or negatively about some behavior. That's, at least, how certain formulations come across to me. But, really, who cares: I agree with what you said about the right way(s) to encourage thinking.

And I loved the bit about Ryan's discovery about negative zero! And how you reacted to it.