When kids independently do what we would have wanted, either their natural inclinations sync with our values — or our values have been successfully transmitted. At these happy moments, an ill-timed temptation to emphasize a lesson may pop up from anxiety, perfectionism, or difficulty letting go.
Instead of riding the wave and following children’s lead, we hijack it. We emphasize our approval, offer rewards or remind them this is what’s we’ve been saying all along. These reactions detract from, and potentially derail, the trajectory of children’s autonomous sense of self.
When children show motivation to master challenges, or be helpful and kind, it’s an expression of an aspect of a developing “self” or identity. In areas where children are well aware of our values, the emphasis should be on mirroring — noticing and articulating their behavior and reactions to accomplishments. This involves personal restraint: refraining from trying to reinforce the outcome or otherwise make it our own and containing our sigh of relief.
Dylan, 12, was excited about his grade. “Congratulations! I see you’re proud of yourself,” said mom. “I know you worked hard and stuck with it this time. How did you get yourself to keep at it?”
In another example, Alex, 13, finally seemed to be developing motivation of his own, but then cleverly asked for an iPhone when he got good grades. His mom, recognizing the risks of attaching rewards to behaviors that were developing naturally, told him that there were no outside rewards for grades. She pointed out that doing well seemed important to him now, and they could work together to help him continue to achieve his goal, if he wanted. (In other situations, and even when kids are motivated, they still need to earn privileges and have limits or consequences to promote self-control, safety and constructive behavior.)
Encouraging kids to think and advocate for themselves, make choices, and experience natural, age-appropriate consequences of their decisions fosters development of responsibility, initiative and competence. Alternatively, when parents don’t trust that positive behaviors will continue unless they take action to secure them, they tamper with and potentially commandeer children’s developing autonomy, weakening momentum and inviting control struggles.
When Josh’s dad saw his grades he remarked, “That’s more like it. I knew you were smart! This is what we expect from you. Now you can have that X-box!”
Josh’s dad failed to notice and leverage Josh’s feelings about his grades, or comment on his effort. Instead, he imposed judgment and expectations, along with the implication that grades (performance) are proof of intelligence (worth).
When we are overly invested in performance, compliance replaces problem solving, judgment and autonomous thinking. Kids then rely on external evidence of their self worth rather than developing their own, more sustainable motivation. Also, when parents impose what they want kids to do onto kids’ natural motivation, children may rebel in order to separate — rejecting rather than embracing authentic aspects of themselves associated with their parents.
Another unfortunate reaction to kids’ positive behavior is failing to notice or noticing but not saying anything, because the negative behaviors are more conspicuous and consistent with the family’s views of the child.
Caleb, 13, had a reputation in his family for being “selfish,” based on his grumbling and preferring video gaming to helping out.
These labels threatened to define how Caleb viewed himself and perpetuate negative behavior. When Caleb and his dad went skiing, however, dad observed Caleb skiing ahead and stopping to help people who had fallen. Typically, when noticing Caleb doing something impressive, his dad was moved but didn’t comment.
Most of us are vulnerable to this phenomenon. When things go well, they are seamless. We don’t feel the same urgency to comment on positive behavior as we do when something bothers us. But when positive behaviors are recognized, they become more a part of who we are. In working on recognizing the person his son was and helping Caleb internalize it too, this time his dad commented, “That was a really kind and generous thing you did in helping those people.”
When kids get it right on their own, it’s a happy, easy time — like the final quarter of a basketball game when your team is winning and all they need to do is run out the clock. You don’t want to mess up the victory by trying too hard in an effort to make something more happen or failing to register the win.
Tips for Parents
- Practice simply noticing and putting into words children’s positive behaviors and feelings.
- Identify biases or stereotypes in how you view your children and try to notice and comment on behaviors you see in them that contradict these.
- Identify for yourself the areas in which your children need guidance and areas where they have some momentum of their own.
- Practice letting go of control in areas where children need space to test themselves.
- Reassure yourself that you don’t have to be perfect for children to turn out OK, and neither do they.
- Remind yourself that letting children make some of their own decisions (within age-appropriate limits) while helping them think through the consequences will help them develop skills to succeed when they are on their own.
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas that occur in families.