Better than a Wet Blanket! How to give effective feedback to your kids

You've probably said many of these statements yourself. If not, you've likely heard them. 

What were you thinking?
You're brother would never do that! Why can't you be more like him?
Be nice to your sister!
You're so smart!
Way to get all A's!
Quit yelling!

For the most part, they sound like pretty standard parenting phrases. So what’s the problem? While I may not go so far as to call each of these phrases “problems,” they may not represent the best in motivational feedback.  No wonder we, as parents, feel like we are repeating ourselves! Is it possible to give feedback to our children in a way that actually motivates and inspires them toward better behavior? I think so. If you want your children to be “INSPIRED” by your words, consider the following advice for giving effective feedback:

is for Individualized feedback: Every child has areas of natural strength and struggle, just like we do as parents. One of the precious tasks we have in raising children is to observe them, understand them, and encourage them according to who they are and what they need. This is one of the deepest joys of parenting – discovering the uniqueness of the little humans under our care and helping them be their best, most authentic self. Individualized feedback doesn’t compare but leaves a child feeling understood, supported, and encouraged in a positive direction. Individualized feedback says, “I’ve noticed that you get frustrated when people take your things without asking. It seems that showing respect for your belongings is important to you. I’m wondering how you could communicated that to your brother in a way that would help him understand without yelling?” (As with all example phrases, don’t forget to tailor your language to the age and maturity level of your child)

N is for NO labels: Labels are rigid statements that fail to reflect the complexity of who our children are. Labels quickly become self-fulfilling prophesies as we reinforce and point out negative traits. Instead of referring to your child as “lazy,” consider saying, “Sometimes I have noticed you work hard, but lately it seems like you have been struggling with discipline.” Have a conversation with your child and help them problem solve. “Have you been feeling less motivated lately?” “Do you have any ideas about what might help you get back on track?” “Is there a way that I can support you so that you can better realize your potential?”

Sis for Specific: While labels are general, specific feedback encourages progress. “I have noticed when you sit down to do your homework, you become easily distracted. Maybe we can practice building up your study stamina. Do you think you could study straight for 20 minutes? Why don’t we give that a try and when you are done, you can reward yourself with a _____ (stretch, brisk walk around the block, a small snack, etc).” Start small and work up to more time. As a parent, you provide the scaffolding to encourage and facilitate growth. Specific tasks enable children to clearly define a goal and, when appropriately set, to avoid becoming overwhelmed or discouraged.

Pis for Positive: Turn your feedback around by rephrasing it. Instead of declaring what you don’t want to see, communicate what you DO want to see. For example, instead of saying, “Quit yelling” direct your child to “Take a deep breath and use a calm voice to tell me what’s going on.” While negative statements tell a child what not to do, they do little by way of providing a helpful description of the desired behavior. Positive statements help to maximize learning.

I is for ‘I language:’ Sometimes, the problem is ours and it’s appropriate for us to own it. For example, if the noise is too much, try saying, “When the house is this loud, I feel frustrated because I can’t think and I would appreciate it if you would take the noisy play outside.” This fill-in-the-blank phrase is a great family tool that both parents and children can use to provide respectful feedback regarding personal needs and requests. Again, by explaining your concern, you are allowing your child to learn about their behavior and the impact it has upon others.

R is for Respect: The way you communicate to your children coveys a powerful message about what you believe about them and their abilities. Communication that comes from a personal place of exasperation or frustration can undermine your children’s confidence. When you find a way to communicate respectfully, even when you are tired or frustrated, not only do you model healthy coping, but you can communicate in a way that doesn't damage one of your child’s greatest assets, a belief in their own abilities.

Eis for Effort: Did you know that labels aren’t even very helpful when they are positive? Positive labels have been shown to discourage risk taking and innovation. In one study, children who were praised for their abilities such as for being “smart,” later chose easier tasks, perhaps so that they would continue to appear smart. Children who were praised for effort, later took on greater challenges. When thinking about how to give positive feedback to your children, rather than use labels such as “smart” or “athletic,” praise them for their effort not the outcomes. 

Dis for Democractic: As parents, we are so accustomed to solving problems that we often underestimate our children’s abilities and intervene too quickly. Inspire your children by encouraging them to identify the problem and generate solutions on their own. You will likely be surprised at what they are capable of. You may also be delighted at the increased ownership they demonstrate when it was “their idea.” Instead of jumping in and solving a sibling squabble or sending them to their room, consider sitting down together and encourage them to identify the problem and brainstorm solutions.

Now that you know a bit about constructive feedback, take a moment to review the list of phrases at the top of this article. I hope that you are “INSPIRED” to replace these lackluster phrases with powerful strategies for teaching and motivating your children!  You got this! 

Parenting Your Teen: A Return to the Basics

As our children grow and change, so do the demands on our parenting.  This is particularly so with the onset of adolescence.  Even parents who have enjoyed close and satisfying relationships with their children, often observe some unsettling changes.  The days of baking together, providing satisfactory answers to their many "why's," and saving the day with a trip to the park are seemingly absent. Left in this place, are adolescent bodies tucked behind head phones, iPads, and a bedroom door that is more often closed than open.  In spite of these changes, parents remain an extremely important figure in the life of their teen, providing stability in the face of turbulence, affirmation in the face of insecurity, and guidance in the face of confusion. That is, if we can avoid getting derailed by our own all-too-common experiences of frustration, confusion, defensiveness, and loss that go along with parenting a teen.  One of the best ways to stay on track during this season is to revisit some basics. Reflecting on your own parenting, how are you doing with the following?

Are you a safe person to your child?  Do you typically respond in a calm fashion or are you more likely to react from a place of heightened emotions?

Are you a good listener?  Do you reflect back what you hear and ask for clarification?  Do you observe body language and other non-verbal signs of communication? Do you use feeling words to label what you see? (“You seem discouraged.  What’s going on?”)

Do you collaborate with your teen by actively pursuing their thoughts and perspectives?  -OR- Do you force-feed them solutions forfeiting opportunities to solve problems together?

Are you a teacheror a teller?  Are you teaching your son or daughter how to become wise so that they can listen to the “voice inside their head” or are you raising a compliant child who simply follows the various voices “outside their head” such as teachers, parents, and peers?

Do you lovinglycorrect behavior without placing a negative label on the person?  -OR- Do accusations such as lazy, selfish, klutzy, annoying, loud, or loner too easily slip out?

Do you show your son or daughter plenty of physical affection? Hugs and appropriate touch continue to be an important way to express love and reassurance to your growing teen.

Does your son or daughter know what you like about them?  Do you offer frequent compliments and verbal affirmations of their skills, effort, and influence?

Do you encourage your son or daughter to try new things and discuss mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow?

Do you actively monitor your children?  Do you know where they are and who they are with?  Do you take the time to get to know their friends?  Do you seek to minimize unsupervised time?

Do you schedule intentional family time such as special meals, activities, or outings?  Are you able to eat dinner together most nights?

Are you taking good care of yourself and your relationships?  Do you take regular time for rest, relaxation, and connection with your spouse and/or adult friends?

Have you established and maintained a supportive network of extended “family” – those who support you, understand you, and love your children?  Family life is too hard to do alone!


A New Mindset

A "2" in math! How could that be? He's such a bright young boy. This doesn't make any sense!

The teacher confessed, she's a very quiet little girl. She prefers to be with me. She has a hard time interacting with the other children.

If you are a parent, the details may be different, but the feeling is all-too-familiar: Panic!

The distance between a life hiccup and the anticipated failure of our child to graduate college is alarmingly short in our hair-triggered minds. This is especially so at two in the morning when our thoughts race and sleep evades us. 

One of the reasons we get into such trouble is that we are being enticed by a "fixed mindset." We struggle to tolerate challenges, problems, or limitations with our children, because we fear that this will be the final word.

Is it possible that those anxious thoughts and sleepless nights could be assuaged by better ways of thinking about our children's abilities? A "growth mindset" is the belief that traits are malleable and humans are capable of growing. A growth mindset gets us back on track. It reminds us that the ability to tackle a challenge and to persist through difficulty is the essential fuel for the engine of success. 

Check out this great TED talk on some very interesting findings regarding a growth mindset. And next time you're feeling seduced into a place of worry, take a deep breath and remember this: Your children cannot know courage, persistence, or resilience apart from difficulty!

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