Essential Principles of Parenting:
4. Recognition – Accepted/Acknowledged
APPROVAL consists of two components. Feeling ACCEPTED unconditionally, for who we are, rather than who our parents would like us to be. For example, Dad wants a son but gets a daughter, so she rejects girly activities and frilly dresses and becomes a tomboy. Subconsciously, she feels that she is not unconditionally ACCEPTED as she is (a girl) but can be ACCEPTED only on condition that she becomes what Dad wants her to be (or what she believes he wants her to be). Never mind that Dad has probably gotten over his original disappointment and ACCEPTS his darling daughter unconditionally, there
will always be family members to remind her that ‘she was supposed to be a boy’. If Dad is a keen sportsman and would like to have a son to share those interests, but his son is musical, artistic or wants to take up ballet dancing, the son may feel that he is not ACCEPTED unconditionally by his Dad. It doesn’t matter that he has Mum’s full support and she is proud of him - this does not compensate for not having Dad’s unconditional ACCEPTANCE.
Acceptance: Unconditional acceptance of the child for who they are and as they are, encouraging and supporting them in developing the potential they have and achieving their goals.
Acknowledgement: Children need acknowledgement for achievement. Importantly, they also need acknowledgement for their effort, even if the effort does not produce a successful outcome. Not achieving a desired outcome is a failure only if the child feels a failure – which is derived from criticism or picking up a message of disappointment from the parent or other significant adult. There are many constructive lessons to be learnt in the process of ‘effort’ which are cumulative. These are fostered and reinforced by a few words of praise from the parent. Encouragement and motivation also need to be given, (but not the pressure and attitude of ’winning is all that matters’ kind of encouragement). Emphasis needs to be on participation, having a go, giving it your best shot, good sportsmanship, congratulating the winner and taking losing with good grace. A poor looser is
indeed a loser. Even small progress in skills and performance needs to be considered a success, independent of achieving complete success in the desired final outcome. An important lesson to be learnt from not always being successful in initial efforts in endeavours is learning to handle disappointment and frustration, developing perseverance and resilience, learning to extract the positives from ‘failure’, learning from mistakes, learning humility, learning appreciation for effort and success (by self and others). There is an important lesson in the innate satisfaction of a job well done, knowing you have given it your best and seeing the incremental improvements that come with practice and experience. Anyone who has always been successful in
achievements may not be equipped to deal with disappointment and failure that are generally inevitable in some form during a lifetime. Any praise needs to be realistic, appropriate and genuine.
Appreciation also needs to be expressed for behaviour and activities that are not achievement-driven. Mothers complain and criticise children who leave their rooms in a mess. However, parents also need to remember to express appreciation for positive behaviour, rooms being kept tidy, homework being completed or done without having to be nagged, and doing household chores as part of learning self-sufficiency and as a contribution to family cooperation in maintaining a well-ordered functioning household. Parents need to remember to express appreciation. (Payment of an allowance that covers expenses the child has and also allows for some personal expenditure or savings is not addressed here - although the child should not be taught to expect payment for every household task they perform).
Acceptance: Pushing your child to be who you would like them to be rather than being accepting of who they are and supportive of their talents and goals - perhaps pursuing unfulfilled dreams and ambitions of your own. Children often try to be who the parent wants them to be (ie, adopt a role) in order to gain ‘approval’. If achieved, this approval is felt to be conditional acceptance, so they will be unhappy and still feel unworthy of unconditional acceptance. They are aware they are not being their ‘true self’ which they have rejected because their parents appear to have rejected the child’s true self as ‘not acceptable’. This rejection may sensitise a child to rejection (real or imagined) by others as an adult.
Acknowledgement: Not acknowledging or giving praise for effort and achievement is, to say the least, very discouraging or hurtful for the child. If your emphasis is only on achievement while you ignore effort and any improvement - and if you express disappointment in any outcome that is not completely successful - this will result in the child’s need being unmet. The child will have long term feelings of being ‘not good enough’.
DO NOT get into the habit of giving food as a reward. This may be setting up the brain to seek artificial sources of dopamine (as discussed in "Validation" listed under "More Info") that have the potential to become addictive. Teaching the habit of using food for reward can lead to to self-sabotaging problems problems later when attempting to lose weight, (eg, a woman on a weight loss programme succeeds in resisting temptation so succeeds in losing several kilograms. She may decide she deserves a reward for losing weight and also deserves a treat for ‘being good’, resisting temptation). Hugs and verbal praise are what kids really require as reward.
Acceptance: A child’s need for unconditional acceptance will be violated by rejection (or the perception of being rejected).
Acknowledgement: Criticism, ridicule, put down, belittling or being dismissive of efforts, calling the child an ‘idiot’ or a ‘failure’ who will ‘never amount to anything’ is a violation of the child’s need for approval. Always placing emphasis on winning, ‘winning is all
that matters’, ‘no prizes for coming second’, promoting a view of ‘winning at any cost’, rather than accepting and supporting skill level, and acknowledging effort and achievements that are made. A child who manages to live up to these expectations may feel that approval is conditional on winning and live in fear of failing and losing parental approval. A child unable to live up to these parental expectations is likely to feel a failure, have low self worth and may feel discouraged from making effort since they are ‘never’ going to be a winner, but will always be regarded as a failure. A child who is unable to live up to these parental expectations of always being the winner, but nevertheless does achieve highly, has the potential to be successful in life but is unlikely to ever be able to feel successful. Well intentioned ‘constructive criticism’ is more likely to be destructive, unless within the context of providing acknowledgement (for achievement, effort, increments of progress) and presenting criticism as supportive suggestions for exploring ways the child can learn from any efforts and achieve their full potential.
Acceptance: Excessive unconditional praise may lead to exaggerated sense of Self Worth, a narcissistic sense of entitlement and an attitude of “that’s how I am – if you don’t like it, tough, that’s your problem”. These pampered, indulged darlings
with an inflated sense of importance are also more likely to turn into bullies. If the child feels perfect as they are, there may be no incentive to strive for self improvement and personal growth. This may also eliminate motivation to achieve if they receive sufficient approval (without having to exert any effort) via excessive unconditional praise. A child constantly praised for being ‘cute and adorable’ may try to remain childlike, resulting in hampering emotional development.
Achievement: Excessive praise of achievements may lead to feeling invincible, god-like, unable to conceive of failure, then unable to cope with failure when they don’t live up to expectations. Excessive (unrealistic) praise for unsuccessful efforts
and minor achievements may be counter-productive. This may lead to the child feeling like a fraud, undeserving of praise, because the child is able to measure their own performance against that of others and become aware that their parents’ praise is not a true indicator of the worth of their efforts. Lacking a true indicator of their efforts, they may fear failure so focus only on what comes easily to them and be deterred from new challenges or doing anything that requires effort. Pressure of
excessive expectations of achievement may be in the form of over planning a child’s life, filling up all the child’s spare time with structured activities such as tutoring, coaching in several sports, music classes and enrolment in anything else that the parents think will contribute to the child’s success in life. This places a heavy focus on achievement and disallows free time for
development of independence and flexibility.
Example of the need for Unconditional Acceptance:
This is an extreme example of a child’s need to have parental unconditional acceptance, nevertheless, it does illustrate the point. I was half-watching a documentary on the life of Peter Sellers, the actor/comedian. There were comments by friends and work colleagues to the effect that Peter ’could never be himself’, but had to ‘always be playing a role’. When the documentary came to describing his mother, that really got my attention. It turns out that ‘Peter’ is not the name he was actually given. His 'given' name was 'Richard'. ‘Peter’ was the name of an older brother who had died before Richard was born. Obviously the mother had never recovered from his death and she regarded Richard as some sort of replacement child, because she always called Richard by the name of‘Peter’. Here was the answer to why he ‘could never be himself' but had to always be ‘playing a role’. He learnt at a very young age that he was not worthy of acceptance as himself (Richard.) Having his mother’s acceptance was conditional on him being someone else, (Peter). His source of validation with his mother was being Peter, but it was a conditional validation. Richard must have subconsciously felt that Peter was more important to his mother than he was, so he would have felt that he (Richard) was unimportant. His early introduction to performing in vaudeville with his parents probably provided him with a legitimate reason to not be himself, enabling him to receive validation by being someone else in performance roles. Throughout life, he felt he was unacceptable as himself and felt acceptance was conditional on being someone else, ‘playing a role’. As an actor and comedian, he constantly received validation for ‘playing a role’ being someone else.
However, having validation does not mean happiness or having a healthy sense of Self Worth when that validation is conditional on not being who you truly are. In his personal life, he was not a happy man. He was reportedly a very difficult man to live with, being demanding, self focused and throwing childish tantrums. It is hardly surprising that he was emotionally immature or emotionally retarded. Locked into the child role of his dead brother to gain maternal approval, there was no role of his brother as an adult for him to grow into so his emotional development would have been stunted. His own identity (Richard) and needs were repressed so that he would not have had opportunities to develop emotionally into an adult as himself. As for the tantrums as an adult, I would suggest this possibly reflects the anger (repressed as a child) he felt towards his over controlling, over protective mother who rejected him (Richard), as being unworthy of her love and approval.
1. There needs to be balance in ‘acceptance’ and ‘acknowledgement’, with appropriate praise serving as ‘ego strengthening’ which contributes to building a strong, healthy ego. If achievement is the sole source of approval, kids may put more effort into achievement in the belief they are worthy of acceptance only if achieving (ie, acceptance is conditional). If a child receives
praise only for who they are (eg, pretty, smart) and no acknowledgement for effort and achievement, they may feel they don’t have to make any effort in life or there is no point since it is not acknowledged.
2. It is important that approval comes from both parents. If praise comes from one parent only and the other parent gives only criticism, then the child may regard the ‘critical’ parent as providing a ‘reality check’.They may regard the criticism and lack of praise as the true evaluation of their worth and feel that the praise is not genuine and/or is not deserved.
3. Simply avoiding actual criticism is not the answer, as comments by a parent intended to be accepting, supportive and encouraging of a child’s performance may be interpreted by the child as meaning ‘not good enough’, anyway. For example, if
one parent is generous in his praise, but there are occasions when he may say, “Never mind, you’ll do better next time”, the words may be read to imply that the child’s performance is ‘not good enough’. If the child reads disappointment in the expression on the parent’s face and in his words, this will confirm the interpretation of ‘not good enough’.
Research on the Role of Praise:
Bronson and Merryman’s (2009) exploration of child development research revealed that praise for a child’s effort is preferable
to praise for intelligence. Telling a child they are ‘smart’ has been demonstrated to be detrimental to performance, effort and attitude. Conversely, when praised for effort, the child can take ownership for that, as they ‘see themselves in control of
their success’. The praise also needs to be specific so the child knows exactly what they are being praised for. A down side of
excessive praise is that image-maintenance becomes the primary concern and children are more competitive and more interested in ‘tearing others down’. Constant ‘reward’ (praise or actual success) can lead to kids making effort only if there is a reward. Conversely, a neural circuit monitoring the ‘reward centre’ in the brain can be instrumental in developing persistence when the child learns the value of effort (that doesn’t always lead to success) and can deal with frustration and failure.
Consensus among psychologists and other child development and behaviour professionals indicate clearly that social experiments in child raising and education by social engineers aimed at protecting children from feeling hurt or inadequate and for building self esteem simply have not worked. The policy of ‘every child wins a prize’, by giving kids a medal for ‘simply turning up’ means that merit and effort are ignored as non-essential and go unrewarded, so there is no boost to self esteem, no incentive to achieve, no incentive to strive to improve, to do better. Praise needs to be genuine and realistic - telling children that they are smart or intelligent when they are not, does not make it so. Praise for intelligence has been found to hinder rather than help by discouraging kids from taking on challenges. In trials, even the more intelligent children are likely to choose non-challenging options so that they continue to appear smart. By contrast, when kids are praised for effort, they
are more likely to choose challenging tasks. Dr Andrew Fuller comments on teachers and parents offering empty praise in an attempt to placate children, pointing out that praise in itself is not bad but we have ‘praise-addicted’ children.
Not having to face inadequacy, not having to face consequences of laziness or lack of effort, not having to deal with frustration, not having to face disappointment, not having to come back from failure, kids are not developing persistence and not learning to become resilient. So, down the track, the consequences of these policies are evident in the poor self esteem and wellbeing among kids and their lack of resilience.The academic consequences are evident in poor literacy and numeracy skills.
Bronson, P. O.,& Merryman, A., “Nurtureshock”, Random House (2009).