A week or so ago, Natalie and I watched the 2009 movie Couple’s Retreat with Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and a few other recognizable faces, including (though less recognizably) Carlos Ponce as the tantric yoga instructor, Salvadore, who teaches the couples some rather fancy moves. The above clip shows you most of the hilarity that ensues during the yoga lesson. Aside from giving you an opportunity to laugh uncomfortably, the reason I included the video, and the reason I am bothering to write about this at all is that I was struck by Salvadore’s use of the word “Encouragement!” in place of actual words of praise or encouragement. For the most part, he doesn’t say, “you’re doing so good,” or, “you’re really good at this,” or “excellent yoga-ing!” Instead he keeps saying just the word “Encouragement!” or “Yes!” each time he wants to praise or incite the efforts of the individuals and couples in his class. At the time, Natalie and I, of course, laughed ourselves silly, but it got me thinking…
On the one hand — sure, it’s a joke, and you likely wouldn’t get too motivated by someone just shouting, “Encouragement!” at you. And generally speaking, if you actually are going to offer motivational cheers to someone, it’s more customary to be more specific, as in shouting to a marathon runner, “You can do it!” or “Just a little bit more to go!” or “Woooo! Go, Betty!”. On the other hand — the intentional generality of Salvadore’s “Encouragement!” has the capability of motivating without labeling the person, and without setting up a paradigm of particular achievement. The opposite would be something like, “You are so flexible!”, “You’re a serious yogi!”, or “You can go further!”. Though unintentionally, all three of those phrases, by their nature, limit the receiver’s identity, attach external goals to the receiver’s sense of progress and self, and establish that without these assessments the receiver has neither identity, agenda, or ability. An intentional, and intentionally general, word like, “Encouragement!”, however odd it would actually be in common usage, does more obviously communicate Salvadore’s purpose(s) in saying it, and does so without the valuation latent in the other examples above.
Motivating and encouraging our kids is one of those places where we parents tend to get hung up on pop psychology parenting techniques the most. It’s a multi-pronged issue that has been shown to thwart parents’ attempts to spur their children onward (toward goals that the children and/or the parents have), disengage the children’s internal motivation, and diminish the comfort of the relationship the parents share with their children. I’ve written more extensively about this previously, and will just direct you here for more on the idea. What I wanted to do today was to offer a few additional alternatives to some of the more common versions of praise and external motivation, as follows:
- Instead of saying “Good job” or “Good girl” when one of our daughters complies with a request we’ve made, we often just say, “Thanks!”. Gratitude is such a wonderful feeling for both the giver and the receiver, and such an exceptional general tonic for the health and vigor of all relationships, that it’s usually enough to just offer it alone (in word and feeling) and leave it at that.
- Sometimes, though, in place of “Good job” or “Good helping” as is commonly said, we will say to one of our daughters, “Thanks,” and then go on to explain how what she did helped us, such as, “when you help, it goes much faster for both of us…”. We may also point out how what they did helps them, specifically, as in, “Thanks, when you ladies help pick up the toys, you help keep them and your feet safe!” Specific information that they can use to make future decisions, not specific phrases derived solely for the purposes of inciting the repetition of certain behaviors, is our aim, and though it may sound like splitting hairs, the difference in the intention is palpable.
- Instead of “Good sharing” or “Good job sharing”, we might say “Thanks” (again), but we usually say nothing (and that in itself is a theme). If we do say something further, it is to draw attention to how good we feel or how good the other person seems to be feeling about the sharing. If there is additional room in the attention span, we might also add a question about how it felt to be the giver, both before and after seeing the receiver so delighted.
- When one of the girls is attempting a new task and having some success, rather than saying, “Good job”, “Good girl”, or even, “Good skating!”, we’d be inclined to celebrate the experience with her, as in, “That looks like so much FUN!”, or “How do you feel?! ‘Awesome’? Great!”, or just the classic, “Wooo Hoooo!”. Perhaps most importantly, we mirror our responses and intensity to theirs — that is, if they are really excited, we’ll get excited with them; if it’s only a minor achievement for them, then we respond more subtly — and thus they recognize our authenticity, rather than feeling like we are being disingenuous.
- If the task is a developmental one, like standing, walking, running, etc., for the first time, then we might say, “Hey, you’re standing”, or “You did it!”, or the aforementioned, “Wooo Hoooo!” — again celebrating the achievement, rather than trying to “reinforce good behaviors”; and again, mirroring their energy in the celebration.
- This goes for using the toilet successfully, too. One actually doesn’t get the kid to use the toilet any more often by saying, “Good job”, “Good peeing”, or “Good boy, you went potty”, one just sounds funny… With our youngest, we used elimination communication so she was using the toilet before she could say it, and never needed to be coerced to repeat this activity at all, it was just naturalized. With our elder two, we celebrated a couple of times, because the girls were each mildly excited about it. And with Bella in particular, partly because we didn’t know any better, we gave her too much information about how it was easier for all of us when she went to the toilet instead of in her diaper. I say, “because we didn’t know any better” and “too much information”, because although I think some information about such things is helpful, I’m sure now that I was focusing on this too much, hoping to coerce her future choices too much, and therefore, going overboard with the amount and intensity of the information. Note to self: some information is helpful, too much or of the wrong variety is counter-productive at best.
- When one of the girls is involved with a task that she chose and wants us to watch her do, instead of responding with, “Good job”, or any such praise or encouragement, we simply make sure she knows we are noticing. These days, we can just watch and show our interest, and then watch the girls beam with the shared as well as their own enthusiasm. Though, more so in the past, we still sometimes say, “Is that so fun?” or “Are you just loving doing that?”, or “I see you (up there/doing that/concentrating so hard)”. We’ve said those enough, that now, when we just look and smile, the girls often say, “I’m having so much fun!” and we say (you guessed it), “Wooo Hoooo!”.
- Finally, when what we really want is just to let the girls know that we love them, that we appreciate them, or that we think they are totally awesome — which is often — instead of, “You’re such good girls”, or “You make me so proud”, or giving them encouraging labels like “My little angels”, we tell them what we think and feel. So if it’s “I love you”, then we say, “I love you”. If it’s “I like you”, “I appreciate you”, or “I’m glad you’re you/here/my daughter!” then we say those things. If it’s “You’re totally awesome” or any such variation, we’ll say, “I think you’re so awesome!”. But again, we say these things only when we actually feel them, most often with no provocation, and always with full ownership of the opinion, sometimes even calling out the fact that we all have our own opinions.
So, to those of you interested and/or attempting such socially-uphill endeavors, may I say, “Have fun (if you want to)”, “It is possible (if you want it to be)”, aanndd, “Encouragement!“.
P.S. Just so you know, my offer was a serious one, if you want to post a scenario, I’d be happy to help you find a supportive response that you can use instead of praise.