Compassionate Parenting Blog
Offering rewards – as in “get good marks in school and I will buy you a new toy/game” – is an oft used parenting strategy. The question is, does it actually work? Research shows that for mundane, repetitive tasks, rewards do work. For more complex tasks where nuanced learning is involved the answer is usually “yes” – for a while. In the short-term, it will work. Your child will get better marks, not fight with their siblings, or do whatever is your desired goal. Long-term however, offering rewards as a means to change behaviour for complex tasks does not work. The marks will not be sustained and the fighting will resume. Ever tried a star chart and wondered why it worked for the first month but then stopped working?
The clue as to why this happens is in the statement, “whatever is your desired goal.” The goal is yours, not your child’s. Your child will understand you requesting an outcome that is yours, not theirs, as an attempt to control behaviour.
As Jessica Lahey points out in The Gift of Failure, extrinsic rewards are viewed as attempts to control behaviour, and humans don’t respond well to others trying to control what we do. We are much more likely to stick with something that comes from personal choice. In order for lasting change to happen, the rewards need to be intrinsic; the motivation for the change needs to come from within your child. And they need to have choice – if there is a choice between doing something imposed or something chosen by free will (i.e. either responding to the reward or not responding to the reward) – they will choose free will and not respond to the reward.
Seeing external rewards as an attempt to control isn’t a conscious decision. Seven years olds don’t consciously think, “My parents are trying to make me learn piano by offering me candy if I practice every day of the week. I will do it for five weeks, and then I think I’ll hold out for something bigger.” What happens is that what is seen as motivation by parents is unconsciously seen as an attempt to control behaviour by the child.
Alfie Kohn, a parenting and human behaviour author and educator, writes:
“…an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a ‘Good job!’”
So, what’s the answer? How do you encourage the behaviours you would like to see in your child? As suggested above, the key is intrinsic motivation. The pride and sense of accomplishment that come with sticking with and figuring out a tough problem are examples of intrinsic motivation. Mastering a skill and the feeling of competence that accompanies that are powerful motivators.
This doesn’t mean that you walk away from your child when they are faced with challenges. It means that you stay close and present when they are working through them. Think of how you were when your child was learning to walk. You probably watched, held your breath as they wobbled, and offered a steadying hand here and there. You didn’t turn your back nor did you take their steps for them. We need to be able to offer the same scaffolding for our children as they learn and grow in all areas.
Children sense your trust in their ability to solve a problem or work through a challenge. Your belief in them gives them the courage and support they need to tackle a problem and to take the risks needed to solve an issue. As a result of this trust, your relationship with your child will become stronger. The connection between you and your child, knowing that they matter to you and that you have “got their back,” will encourage them to persevere, thereby allowing them to earn the delight and satisfaction of having accomplished a skill or task themselves.
Be warned, this way of parenting takes time and patience and you may be tempted to revert to rewards for what appears to be a “quick fix.” In times like this, take a deep breath and remember that for lasting changes, the motivation needs to be intrinsic. And that ultimately, children who experience mastery, feel competent, and have a sense of belonging, grow up to be capable and decent human beings.
For more on this topic, I highly recommend Jessica Lahey’s book, The Gift of Failure.
Kohn, A. (September 2001). Five reasons to stop saying “good job.” [article]. Retrieved from https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/five-reasons-stop-saying-good-job/
Lahey, J. (2015). The gift of failure. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Listening with intention to our children is critical. If we want our children to know that they are seen, then we need to listen with intention. Not just hear their words, but also be fully present and engaged in the process of listening. Mindful listening and active listening are other terms that also capture the essence of listening with intention.
Think about what you are hoping to convey to your child when you have a conversation with them – the deeper level of what you want to convey, not the immediate subject matter. When I think about what I wish to impart to my children, it is this: I want them to know in a felt sense that they are loved and precious beings. Their knowing this deeply, throughout their whole being, is entirely dependent on how they see themselves reflected back by their dad and I.
It works like this. A child thinks, “If my parent/caregiver/attachment figure believes that I am worthwhile, then I am worthwhile. I know that they believe that I am worthwhile because I can see myself, my true self, reflected in their eyes.”
And how do we reflect back to them that they are worthwhile? We listen to them mindfully, compassionately, without judgment and with all our senses. Look up from your screen, book or whatever you are doing and give your child your eyes. Notice their facial expression, body posture, and tone of voice to pick up clues as to how they are feeling. Listen for the emotion and the need being expressed behind the words, And then let them know what it is you think they are saying. My daughter saying, “I’m bored,” might really mean, “I miss my friend and I’m lonely.”
Now, listening with intention is impossible to do 100% of the time. I try to limit the amount of time my children see me on my phone, but I have on more than one occasion said, “Just let me finish this text.” I also get tired, irritated, frustrated, hungry, and overwhelmed – all of which challenge my ability to listen with intention. So I also practice self-compassion. I do my best and I am human. Sometimes, I circle back and apologize for being distracted. I don’t say it won’t happen again but I might say something like, “I’m sorry I was so distracted just now. I was upset because I just realized I forgot to send a birthday card I meant to put in the mail.”
I work on the belief that if I am able to be present, engaged and listen with intention most of the time, then my children will know deep in their bodies that they are loved and they will feel seen and valued for who they are.
And this is what I wish for them most in this world.
If your family is like mine and the other families I know, heading into December feeling like “I’ve got this!” is a daunting task. On top of all the usual ups and downs of family life, there are the added emotions that the upcoming holiday brings. Extended family complexities, holiday expectations for everything to be “merry and bright,” memories of loved ones that have passed, the high energy of lively young children… it can all be rather exhausting.
When you notice that your heart rate is rising, your shoulders are tensing up, and you are thinking, “This is not going to end well,” taking a mental step back and giving yourself some space can help you respond to a situation rather than react. When we respond, we are more mindful of our tone of voice, the words we are using and how our own emotions are contributing to the situation. It doesn’t mean that we are okay with any behaviour our kids (or others) dish out, but it does mean that we respond in a way that is helpful rather than in a way that adds to the situation.
Here are four strategies to help you take that mental step back so that you are more able to respond from a grounded place. You can try these strategies in the moment and see if they help. There might be one or two that work better for you than the others. Those are the ones you can return to whenever you notice you need to take a moment.
1. Name 5 Things – When you feel like your head is spinning and everything is getting overwhelming, take a moment to name to yourself five things you can see around you. You try it now. “I see a chair. I see a shoe. I see a clock. I see a window. I see a tree outside.” Bringing your attention to your sense of sight helps bring you back to the here and now of your body. When I do this, I notice my breath slowing down as I name the objects I am seeing. You can also do it by naming the sounds you hear around you. It does the same thing of bringing your mind back to the present. You can name the objects or sounds silently to yourself, so that even if others are around, they are unaware that you are practicing this strategy.
2. Ground Yourself – For this strategy, breath into your centre (about an inch beneath your belly button) and notice your feet on the ground, feeling where the soles of your feel make contact with the earth. If you are sitting, you can notice where your body touches the chair. Again, this strategy guides you back to your body in the present. It gives you a moment to take that step back and respond mindfully to the situation.
3. Breathe – Bringing your awareness to your natural breath is another way to settle yourself. You don’t need to change how you are breathing, just bring your awareness to it. If you have a particular breathing technique that you like, such as square breathing or belly breathing, you can use those as well. In the moment, simply noticing your breath will give you the pause you need to respond rather than react.
4. Notice Your Emotional Elevator – You can imagine your emotions as an elevator. At the top is where the high-energy emotions like anger and rage as well as excited and ecstatic live and at the bottom is where the low-energy emotions like calm and restful as well as sad and bored live. Taking note of where your emotional elevator is and then visualizing it going down (or up if needed) can help you regulate your emotions in the moment.
All of these strategies can be done quickly and without anyone else around being aware of what you are doing. If you are with your children, and it a situation with them that you are trying to manage, you can also practice these strategies out loud. Doing this models for them that we all feel overwhelmed at times and need to have strategies to regulate ourselves so that we can respond mindfully. It also gives them strategies that they might choose to use later when they need to pause and take a mental step back.
Do you have other strategies that you use? I would love to hear about them in the comments section.
Wishing you all a December that is filled with ease and moments of connection and joy,
Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She spent years telling people that stress was bad for them; that stress would increase their risk of experiencing all sorts of minor and major health issues. Then she came across a study that made her rethink stress. Her 2015 book, The Upside of Stress, is a fascinating and intriguing exploration of her journey through the research of stress (that first study and many others) and how science is now discovering that there is more than one stress response – and that there is indeed an upside to stress. Her TED Talk, above, has been viewed more than 17 million times.
McGonigal relates that there are three other stress responses besides flight, fight and freeze. Stress can also encourage you to: rise to the challenge; connect to others; and learn and grow. These responses and their indicators are described in the table below:
|How the Stress Response Helps You||How You Know It’s Happening|
|Rise to the Challenge
•Focuses your attention
•Heightens your senses
|•Heart pounding, body sweating, breath quickening
•Mentally focused on source of stress
•Excited, energized, anxious, restless or ready for action
|Connect with Others
•Activates prosocial instincts
•Encourages social connection
•Enhances social cognition
•Dampens fear & increases courage
|•Desire proximity to friends & family
•Paying more attention to others
•More sensitive to others’ emotions
•Desire to protect, support or defend people, organizations or values you care about
|Learn & Grow
•Restores nervous system balance
•Processes & integrates the experience
•Helps the brain learn & grow
|•Body is calming down, but mentally charged
•Replaying or analyzing experience in mind or want to talk to others about it
•Mix of emotions along with desire to make sense of what happened
How we think about stress, McGonigal tells us, makes all the difference in how our body is impacted by stress. Studies indicate that before a stress-induing situation, like writing an exam or having a job interview, if people view their beating heart and sweaty palms as their body preparing them to think more quickly and clearly, then not only do they feel more positive and perform better on these tasks, they are also viewed by independent observers as more confident than people who continued to view their body’s response as stress.
Her TED Talk is 15 minutes. I highly recommend it and The Upside of Stress. What McGonigal has to say is hugely relevant to us all.
Values are what is important to you; the guideposts by which you’ll make decisions. They are qualities that reflect who you want to be in the world. When we make decisions that take into account our values, we are more congruent and will feel more connected to ourselves. We experience greater fulfillment when we live by our values,
The decisions we make and our behaviours are based on and reflect our values. When we use our values to make decisions, we focus on what is important to us—what we need to feel a sense of well-being.
As parents, we can’t always be there to guide the decisions our children make. The values we impart to our children are what will lay the foundation for the kind of people our children become. They are a map for how we want to be as a family. “In our family, we are kind – we use our words and don’t hit others.”
Examples of values include:
- Respecting others
- Spending family time
- Service to others
- Being outdoors
There is a difference between values and beliefs which can be summed up as, “Values unite. Beliefs Divide.”
Beliefs are assumptions we hold to be true. When we use our beliefs to make decisions, we are assuming the causal relationships of the past, which led to the belief, will also apply in the future. In a rapidly changing world where complexity is increasing day by day, using information from the past to make decisions about the future may not be the best way to support us in meeting our needs.
Beliefs are contextual: they arise from learned experiences, resulting from the cultural and environmental situations we have faced. Values are not based on information from the past and they are not contextual. Values are universal. Values transcend contexts because they are based on what is important to us: They arise from the experience of being human.
An example of how values unite and beliefs divide is spirituality. Spirituality is a value that many people hold; however, some people may believe in a particular god, while others find their spirituality in another god or in nature.
How are emotions linked to values? Why is teaching our kids emotions and self-awareness important?
We need to feel and listen to our emotions for them to tell us, and sometimes remind us, what our values are. Big emotions will tell us what we really care about.
For example, when I feel sad that I am not spending time with my children, my sadness tells me my value of connecting as a family is out of alignment and I pay particular attention to how I am spending my time. I might decide to cancel or postpone an afterwork meet up with a friend so that I can reconnect with my family.
Grief is the emotion that expresses love and value for what is being lost. It points directly to what we care about the most. We feel grief when someone or something we value is lost.
Anger, in its balanced expression, is the emotion that gives us the strength and courage to say “No!” in the face of violation. Anger may be pointing us to deeply held values that are being violated. Values like protecting the environment and women’s rights are values that people are motivated by anger to fight for.
If you are interested in learning more about values and exploring what your family values are, contact me at 604-733-8409 or firstname.lastname@example.org to find out when the next Family Focus workshop is happening.
Family meal times are an opportunity for families to come together, check in with each other, share information on how the day is going, and generally just touch base in our fast-paced lives. Children learn societal values and cultural norms around food and eating; family values are imparted; and connections are strengthened.
Research has also linked families who eat together frequently with increased child and youth health. What has not been clear is if families who ate together more frequently were just healthier to begin with or if it was because they ate together that the children were healthier.
This recently published study out of the University of Montreal looks at the relationship between meal times eaten together as a family and the associated physical and mental health benefits over a ten year span. PhD student Marie-Josée Harbec and her supervisor, pyschoeducation professor Linda Pagani, studied a cohort of children born between 1997 and 1998 from 5 months of age until 10 years of age. Studying families since almost the birth of their child and over such a long period of time allowed them to adjust the findings to account for many factors (such as cognitive abilities, child temperament, family configuration, maternal education, and depression) that previous studies weren’t able to. The families started reporting data on meal times when the children were 6 years old. When they reached 10 years of age, parents, teachers and the children, reported on their lifestyle habits, academic achievement, and social adjustment.
The results show that when the quality of the family meal environment is better, children consume less soft drinks, have a higher level of fitness and increased social skills (reporting less aggression and oppositional behaviour).
Setting the intention to eat two or three times together a week can go a long way to raising healthy, socially and emotionally resilient children. With busy families, it is difficult to find a time when everyone is home and can sit down together, but I encourage you to try to do it when you can as the payoff is tremendous.