It’s no secret I’m into natural parenting, gentle parenting, attentive parenting, attachment parenting…whatever labels you put on it, I am into paying attention to my kids, conveying to them that they are loved, having fun with my kids. I believe my kids, just because they happen to be babies, are not subhuman. I take their needs seriously. I also trust them to know when their tummies are full, when they are sleepy, and when they want to be cuddled versus left alone to play.
That being said, I’ve been hearing more and more about something branded ‘unconditional parenting.’ I’ve not read The Book on it, let’s get that out there. But I’ve heard anecdotal stuff, I’ve read some research papers online, and…..I’m horrified.
The idea behind it is good: to let your child know they are loved for who they are, not what they do. I AM BEHIND THIS A MILLION PERCENT.
But part of this, a major part of it, seems to be not offering your child praise.
So, if you child has been working really hard on a painting, for example, and shows it to you, you might say, ‘You used blue and red and green.’ Or ‘Tell me about what you have drawn.’
I don’t see anything wrong with this, but let’s be clear: I think these techniques and theories might have been drawn from child centred play therapy. And that is something I have read the books on. It’s something I’ve done, and done well, with children who are needing some therapeutic support. It’s for kids who are having troubles at home – and who, dare I say it, might not be getting positive praise from their parental figures.
I believe empty praise is shit, don’t get me wrong. But if your child does something they are clearly proud of, they have worked hard at, and they show it to you ? I think a lovely ‘That’s a great painting, Snort!’ isn’t misplaced. Of course, you can follow it up with, ‘Coco, looks like you had a lot of fun making that painting, did you? Tell me about it! What a fantastic job.’
When our kids are little, they are self-contained in many ways. They have the seeds – the ‘nature’ bit. But babies, toddlers, and children look to their parents (I include whoever is the main attachment figure here – be it a grandparent, uncle, whoever) to give them feedback…this is the ‘nurture’ bit that helps them grow and bloom. When you convey to your child that you love them, you are proud of them, you think they do a good job at things, it helps them to solidify an inner picture of self-worth, confidence, and resilience.
When I am with a child in the context of play therapy, I stick more to observational comments and questions. For instance, my longest term play therapy client was a child who did not have any consistency or safety from her life. My job was not to be her parent, my job was to help her regain some of the things she’d lost, and to develop things she’d never had an opportunity to do.
My job was to help her explore her pain, her fear, her anger. She was seven years old.
I cared very deeply for this child and believe she knew it; we had a fantastic relationship, we had a lot of fun, we shared a lot of troubled moments where she confided things that she was worried about.
Her life was pretty fucked up, but you know what? Her parent loved her. Her parent gave her praise, and that little girl was one of the most creative and resilient children I’ve had the pleasure of working with.
I believe everything in life is about balance. I adore play therapy and I think the theory of trusting children to heal in their own time is fantastic. I think children are amazing, perceptive, and full of potential – even the ones who are throwing shit around the room, even the ones who are refusing to talk, even the ones who are hitting and stealing and lying. I think those children are even more amazing – and honest.
What I try to let kids know when I’m working with them (and this extends to teenagers as well) is that I trust them, I respect them, I believe in them. I am not a detached sort of therapist, and that’s because I’m not a detached sort of person. I radiate warmth, acceptance, and curiousity – or at least I hope I do.
After over14 years working in a professional and paid capacity with a very wide range of people ages 0-18, I can’t see how it’s good to never give your child praise. Praise doesn’t have to mean the end product is more important than the process. Praise doesn’t have to equate to pressure to be the best.
Praise can be a hug, a pat on the back, a smile, a few words. Well placed and meaningful praise can make your child feel special, loved, and willing to take risks in the world. If they receive what they need to get externally from their parent when they are young, they are able to internalize this and offer it to themselves as they get older.
I listen to myself when I talk to the babies, and there is no doubt that the therapeutic theories I’ve read, used, and taught have leaked into my being. About twenty minutes ago I heard myself said, ‘Okay, Coconut is feeling angry because she doesn’t want her mama to wash her face.’ I am always naming emotions (without any judgment or expectation attached), I am always describing what they are doing – but I am also always giving them a kiss or cuddle when things are going well.
I don’t want to ‘condition’ my children like dogs – that’s not why I do it. But you know, there are lots of things to learn in this world – what do I think of myself? How do I feel when my mama holds my sister/brother instead of me? When I wake up in the night and it’s dark, how do I feel?
I want to make sure my children are learning a lot of good lessons, lessons based in love rather than fear, or anger, or neglect. Praise is a form of encouragement and a message of unconditional love when done correctly, and to suggest that praise harms a child?
What a load of ridiculous fucking nonsense.