This article was originally published in the Ascent.
How can there possibly be anything wrong with that message? But is all positivity positive? And could too much positivity be negatively affecting our kids?
There are two camps:
1. Those who believe we need to be positive with kids, to encourage them so that they build a strong self esteem and grow to be confident, well-balanced and successful.
2. Those that think we are being too easy on kids these days, that our excessive positivity is leading to a lack of resilience, arrogance and a sense of entitlement.
These two camps have been debating for decades and appear at complete odds with each other. Those in the first camp argue that traditional approaches that focus on highlighting what kids are doing wrong and use fear, guilt and shame as character building tools are damaging. Those in the second camp fear that our coddling and constant cheerleading creates an inflated sense of self that sets kids up for failure when they get into the “real world.”
I believe both camps are right. Regardless of which camp you belong to, my intention is to bring these seemingly conflicting points of view together by offering a small, yet powerful distinction. If understood, this simple nuance will settle this debate once and for all.
A tall order? Give me the benefit of the doubt.
As a teacher, I spend a lot of time in staff rooms listening to the comments other teachers make about “kids these days”. These are some of the common things I hear.
“His parents are so harsh with him that now he’s afraid to make mistakes.”
“She’s failing because she has not been given enough positive encouragement at home.”
“He’s misbehaving because he’s been allowed to get away with it.”
“She’s been spoiled and coddled and now she can’t do anything for herself.”
Yes, these are huge assumptions and judgments being made about parents and kids. I’m not going to pretend that this is not what happens in staffrooms. But it also illustrates the huge divide in what we believe is best for kids.
For a long time, I was really confused. I could see the negative effects of using controlling and fear-based tactics with kids. They became discouraged, anxious, and lost confidence. Some kids would shutdown and become so inhibited that they would lose the ability to think for themselves and others would try to preserve their autonomy by rebelling against everything.
On the other hand, I also observed how using positive reinforcements made kids needy, reliant on rewards, and addicted to praise. I couldn’t help but notice how the constant esteem building seemed to give some kids the idea that they were better than everyone else and made them less able to cope when things didn’t go their way.
It’s hard to be effective with kids when you are questioning something this fundamental. You become wishy washy and indecisive, not knowing when to punish and when to praise, when to be firm and when to lighten up, when to help and when to let them fail. This lack of clarity was made worse by the conflicting judgments from those around. It felt like no matter which way I went I was doing something wrong.
No matter which side you think you are on, I think we are all confused. We’ve been given so many mixed messages, we’re not sure which way to go, and this teeter-tottering between positive encouragement and “tough love” is confusing for kids too.
In an attempt to gain clarity, I began paying close attention to how we speak to kids when we’re trying to be positive. It sounded a little bit like this.
“Great job!”,” You’re so smart!”, “You’re such a good boy/girl!”, “You look beautiful!”, “Winners don’t give up!”, “That’s the best drawing I’ve ever seen!”, “I’m proud of all your hard work!”, “Let’s go out and celebrate your straight As!” etc.
While all these statements sound good, there was something not quite right about the overall message being sent. I made 3 key observations.
1) These statements were focus on evaluating the child’s performance, abilities or appearance and said little about who the child is on the inside.
2) Most of these statements contain comparative language that measures kids to a standard (good vs bad, smart vs stupid, hard working vs lazy), sending them the message that they must continue to live up to this ideal in order to be valued and accepted.
3) Many of these statements perpetuate the idea that being the “best”, “winning” or “working hard” is the only way to achieve happiness and success.
What became clear to me was that while moving away from a harsh negative approach with kids is a big step in the right direction, the oversimplified idea that all we need to do is be more positive with kids was a huge misconception. So, if more positivity is not the answer, then what is?
What I realized was that we’ve been more focused on molding kids externally, then we’ve been on helping them see their value within. Healthy positivity involves filling kids up on the inside, not just building them up on the outside.
In my observations, most of the positivity we use with kids is what I like to call “superficial positivity”. It focuses on praising, rewarding and encouraging the types of external behaviors that we believe will make kids “better” or more accepted by the world. But the very idea that we need to make kids better or teach them how to be “good” is the root of all our problems. If we are convinced that kids need to always be and do better in order to “measure up”, then we are regularly sending them the message that who they are right now is not enough.
And this feeling of not being “enough”, that most of us have deep within our core, leads us to either give up or overcompensate for what we think we lack. This manifests in imbalanced ways as either under or over achievement, lack of motivation or obsessive behaviors, self criticism or boasting, self-harm or harm towards others, and so on.
Ironically, if we remain focused on the external, even our well intention-ed positivity will likely make kids more insecure than confident.
Many kids these days may appear more confident because our superficial positivity has taught them “superficial confidence” which often comes across with a “know it all” or “better than” attitude. This is not real confidence. It’s the result of overcompensating for inner insecurities. I would go as far as to say that when we use excessive praise, we may be projecting our own inadequacies onto kids and teaching them how to over-ride their perceived shortcomings.
What we really want kids to have is an inner confidence. That feeling of being so secure with who they are that they don’t need to make themselves superior or inferior to others; and with nothing to prove, the best of who they are will come naturally from within.
How do we accomplish this? The answer is simple. We focus on internal esteem building. We speak to and engage with kids in a way that makes them feel valued and accepted on the inside. And it’s not just about what we are saying and doing, it’s about how we are being in their presence.
What does this sound like, look like, and feel like? It sounds like “I love you just the way you are”, “I enjoy spending time with you”, “I believe in you no matter what”, etc. It looks like your eyes lighting up in their presence and it feels like trust, non-judgment and pure acceptance. Isn’t this what we all really want?
When kids feel appreciated for who they are instead of just for how well they measure up, they will have the inner confidence to thrive.
Let’s be clear, it’s not really about the specific words we say and things we do. It’s about the energy and intention behind our words and actions. There’s a difference between a genuine compliment and praise with the strings of expectation and the fear of mediocrity attached. Kids easily pick up on what’s behind our words and deeds.
The words themselves are not the issue. So please, go ahead and tell them how smart, how beautiful, and how talented they are. Just make sure you’re not sending the message that they need to be all of these things in order to be love, valued and accepted. Let’s make the message that they are loved unconditionally our greatest priority.
So, if not all positivity is positive, then is all negativity negative? This is a topic for another day, but in short, I don’t think so. Saying no, establishing healthy boundaries and enforcing reasonable consequences may not always incite a positive reaction from a child, but if done with the child’s best interest at heart, this perceived “negativity” will still send them the message that they are important and cared for.
Focusing on internal esteem building doesn’t mean kids will always be happy or that we always give them their way. I think one of the greatest misconceptions is that building esteem means keeping kids cheerful, confident and comfortable all the time. They are going to make mistakes, be disappointed, and get mad at us sometimes. That’s life. But if we focus on filling them up on the inside, they will have the self-assurance and resilience to face life’s challenges with optimism and grace. Isn’t that the best we could hope for?
No matter which camp you belonged to at the beginning of this article my hope is that rather than worry about whether you’re being too negative or too positive with the kids in your life, you will shift your focus to making sure you are filling them up on the inside, rather than just building them up on the outside. I believe that this small, yet powerful distinction will make a world of difference!
Want to learn more about how to make this shift? Gain free access to my learning community here.
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