We don't use praise at our house. On the surface I know that may seem a bit scrooge-like. When our kids do something fantastic we don't squeal "GOOD JOB!" or say how proud we are of them. We don't. (And its taken a lot of practice to get there.) What we do do is watch, celebrate when they are celebrating, commiserate when they aren't, stay with them wherever they are emotionally. It's not like we don't do anything, we do a lot, but we don't interject our opinions on their achievements.
A million reasons. Alfie Kohn lays out the most convincing arguments ever seen in print for leaving both praise and punishment behind. Nathan and I read his Unconditional Parenting book and his logic combined well with what we had intuitively already figured. It seems like praise would feel good, would be encouraging, would show a child that you are on the same team as them and are rooting for their success. It also seems like praise would encourage actions the parents desire, thereby cutting down on actions they do not. It all seems this way but actually praise backfires. It muddies the waters so to speak. When a child is praised for doing something at first the praise seems to work, but then not only does it stop working but it actually backfires and inspires the cessation of said activity. Read Unconditional Parenting because Alfie does a better job than I do of describing the ill-effects.
What stands out for me is that praise takes away a child's personal motivation and dilutes it with the element of mom or dad's pleasure. The child quickly switches from "I'm doing this because it's fun" to "when I do this mom likes me more". Ack. And mom's approval is so strongly desired that the child often will stop doing the activity to avoid risking any displeasure. I've seen this very thing in our home when momentarily I forgot myself and whooped out a "Good Job!". I am not kidding, Xideka immediately halted the very activity I was lauding.
Without praise our kids are free to follow their own interests and learn new skills because of their own personal drive, not because we will reward them (or punish them) with our own emotional response.
Which brings us to swimming. And to pace and pressure.
We got a family membership to the YMCA and have been jumping in their chlorinated pool several times a week for the last three weeks. We like it because we get the exercise of treading water and the girls like it because kids, in general, go ape-shit for pools. When we first started Echo was just polishing off her dog-paddle. She tentatively left the pool's edge and swam carefully to my close-by arms. I'd hold her a bit and then send her back to the wall.
Now Echo, from an outside perspective anyway, is a slow-mover. She emphatically moves at her own pace and that pace could be considered slow. One day while she was at the top of a slide she said: "Mom, I noticed something, whenever someone tries to convince me to do something I don't want to do it." Ain't that the truth. The girl does not like to be pressured, even in the slightest "You can do it!" sort of way. What does this require on the part of mama and papa?
A truckload of patience.
So that was/is my tactic in the pool. Even though I knew she could put her face in the water, or jump from the side, or kick better, or whatever, I didn't say a word. I caught her mid-dog-paddle, hugged her, turned her around, and sent her off. A bajillion times. Day after day.
And then one day she said "Mom! Look I can do the backstroke!" And she could. And it wasn't as if I wasn't watching. Dog-paddle, catch, turn. My eyes were on her. But she was right. She had perfected a back stroke. In her wiggly, squirmy, dog-paddling she was working on things. She was developing. She was learning in a completely invisible way to the outside eye. What looked like a stand-still, or snail-slow pace to me was actually a skipping-right-along.
Okay. So there was a backstroke out of the blue. I wanted to squeal in delight and praise the bejeezus out of her. But I didn't. I said: "Look at that! A backstroke. You can do a backstroke now huh?" And she grinned, pleased as punch with herself and moving on (invisibly) toward her next milestone.
No praise, allowing her pace to proceed as it will, and patience. In other words GET OUT OF THE WAY and the little pipsqueak will astound.
So more days of dog-paddle, turn, backstroke, turn, dog-paddle, hug, turn, backstroke, turn. Again and again and again.
Then one day the lifeguard sees Echo swimming and says "You know hon you'll swim a lot faster if you put your face in the water! Want me to get you some goggles? If I get mom some goggles she can go under too and you can wave at each other. Want to try?!" Echo smiled awkwardly and looked at me. I said I was willing if she wanted me to, but I felt myself wanting her to want to. I found myself suddenly, and (secretly, repulsively) wanting to please this lifeguard I didn't even know. Wanting her to think of Echo as a good swimmer or something. Echo agreed. We got goggles. She gave it a half-second attempt and then burst into tears. I held her while she cried for thirty-five minutes.
We went from blissful, swimming-on-her-own-terms to sobbing, miserable child in the blink of an eye. She cried because she didn't know if she could do it and she wanted to be able to do it. She cried because suddenly adults she admired were moving her a few stepping stones ahead before she knew herself to be ready. She cried until the moment became hers again, until enough time had passed and the terms were her own.
Then she slid from my arms, adjusted the goggles and put her face in the water. For two seconds. Then she flung them off and went back to dog-paddle, turn, backstroke, turn.
Lesson learned. Pressure doesn't help. GET OUT OF THE WAY.
All of the days of invisible development started to add up to confident swimming, spinning in circles mid-pool, and bactstroking all over the place. Her mind and body were working overtime yet still without many outward signs. Then yesterday she said: "Mom I'm going to practice my backstroke and them I'm going to take the swim test."
The swim test???
At the YMCA kids have to pass a swim test in order to go into the deep end. Echo and I heard of this our first day and I never gave it another thought. I figured, based on our pace, the deep end would happen for us in a couple of years. Days would go by, other kids would exhibit their skills for the lifeguard and splash off into the dark blue depths, but Echo and I contentedly paddled away well within the five-foot mark.
I was utterly shocked by Echo's new goal but I didn't say anything. And sure enough: "Okay I'm ready mom!" We paddled over to the lifeguard, Xi coming along too, emboldened by her little sister's gumption, to take the test herself. The guard stood, clad in official red, towering over Echo's tiny pinto-bean head. "You know what to do sweetheart?" But Echo was already off. She paddled all the way out to the middle of the pool, touched the center lane line, gracefully laid back and backstroked her way all the way back to the guard. Cool as a cucumber.
She felt good. She was stoked to explore the deep blue. And her victory was all hers.
When I saw her tiny slick head confidently making her way across that aquamarine I finally got it. Her pace is her own. Don't pressure, don't praise. She's reaching for the stars and succeeding.