Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why "good kid" bothers me

Last month I ran a wonderful guest post from Amy at Anktangle about "Being 'good,'" on not using the adjective "good" to describe our babies' behavior, and there was an interesting conversation in the comments that stuck with me and made me think about the topic further.

Please note when I'm quoting a commenter in the following, I'm not disagreeing with or arguing against her (I'm actually specifically not quoting anyone I disagreed with — heh heh); it's just something that made me think.

"You didn't say this, but some people are afraid to call their children 'good' at all. It bothers me. Children are good people, and I think it's important to tell them that. I believe that when I randomly tell my son that he's a good boy, he'll ingrain it as a part of my unconditional acceptance of him, and that if anyone ever tells him otherwise, he'll at least know that his mother sees him as good. But, agreed, it shouldn't be used to describe them based on whether or not someone likes their behavior." — Lisa C of My World Edenwild

Here was my muddled response at the time:

"I like the idea of randomly saying that a child is good, not attached to behavior. Because, yes, I do believe every child is good. I know my parents used to say it to me every once in awhile, and it made me feel happy, though I'm sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was a very easy and obedient kid. I wonder if I can steel myself to say it when he's not behaving in a way commonly accepted as 'good.'"

I don't know if you can hear my ambivalence in there, because as I thought back to times my parents had randomly declared to me, "You're a good kid, you know that?" I remembered the glow — but now, as an adult, I can also analyze their remark further to realize there was something more behind it than simple love. It was a mark of approval.

By labeling me a "good kid," they were saying, in my mind at least, that I was compliant, quiet, accomplished in school, and so forth. I don't think my parents meant when they said, "You're such a good kid," some twisted ulterior subtext of "We love you because you make life convenient for us, and we wouldn't love you if you didn't" — but I fully knew, even as a child, that my label as "good" was due to my overall pleasant behavior and temperament. If asked, I could have gleefully pointed to several "bad" kids I knew, again based on behavior.

So I wondered how to apply Lisa's general principle — that, yes, kids are good and should know it, regardless of behavior — but use the right words to convey that message specifically rather than the behaviorally based "good."

Well, lo and behold, Kelly Hogaboom forwarded me a link to a series in Life Learning Magazine by Naomi Aldort on the topic, and Part 3 (the beginning of which is online) explained it all for me: my ambivalence, and what to say instead.

A reader asks if she should give her child general praise, such as "You are wonderful." Naomi says this:

"Love is the water of the human soul; evaluation is not. One of the ways love shows up for the child is through the experience of knowing that her life makes a difference and touches the people she loves. Ask yourself what touches your heart, when someone says to you, 'you are great' (evaluation) or when she says, 'Being with you, I feel inspired.' It is the emotional connection that matters to us the most.

Use private moments to share whatever is present and real for you at the moment; a smile, a hug, an action and/or words. Instead of vague evaluative words, share how you feel and how your child’s presence moves you. While taking a walk together you can say, 'I feel excited walking with you;' while helping your child wash his hair, 'I love washing your hair, I feel so close to you and that is so important to me;' giving full attention, one-on-one, is one of the loudest ways to express love and recognition of your child’s importance in your life." [emphases mine]

So, to rework my parents' statement, I just have to look to other times they said something less evaluative, like, "I'm so glad we're in this family together," or, simply, "I really love you."

I think Naomi's suggestions relate to the link I shared last Sunday Surf, too, from this woman's work — "On needing to be seen," which contains this dialogue:

“Hey David!” Amy called. “Look at you! You have brand new shoes!”

David stopped, looking down at his shoes as if he’d forgotten that he was wearing them.

“I got them last night,” he said. “My mommy took me after school.”

“They are certainly bright blue shoes!” Amy said.

David grinned then skipped off sunnier than he had been before.

“There you go,” Amy said to me. “He just wants to be seen.”

[emphasis mine again, and I didn't redo all the quote marks right because I couldn't be bothered…]

Telling your children, "I had such a fun time laughing with you under the covers while we were hiding from Daddy today" or "I would love to bake cookies with you" is a way of seeing your kids in the moment and expressing your own joy at their existence, in a way that's not dependent on their behavior or seeking to control the way they behave.

I don't know that there's a way to rid myself of all evaluative statements. I know, for instance, that I tend to get pretty impressed when Mikko spells a word correctly or sings a song all the way through, and by expressing my appreciation for his feat, I'm also inserting some measure of approval of that particular task, which subtly suggests that he continue walking down that path rather than another. And then often that backfires: A sure way to get a kid to stop singing is to tell him how much you like his singing! I know I'm doing it but find it hard to stop.

I don't want to be so terrified of saying the wrong thing, though, that I can't speak to my child at all, or only in the most stilted fashion. The best I can do for now is be more aware of it, and look for ways to turn evaluative statements into simple love. That might mean saying nothing at all and letting him find his own joy, his own evaluation, and simply give him my presence.

Even deeper than that, I need to dig within myself and learn to appreciate people, including my kids, for who they are, not what they can do, or how they please me. Then I suppose the sincere appreciation will ring out, without my needing to think about it all so hard.

It strikes me that Lisa C. is probably sincere like that in what she says, and means exactly "You're a good kid," without anything else behind it; I know my own tangled thoughts and motives too well to think I can say such a thing spontaneously and mean it in the right way. When I think about the people who express exuberant appreciation like that to me, I think of a few good friends (including Sam) who like me unconditionally and have never distanced themselves from me due to my bad behavior or tried in some didactic fashion to shape me more to their liking.

I think it's probably easier with adults to be accepting of who they are, because we expect adults to be stuck in their ways. With children — especially our own children — we think we have the right and responsibility to mold them to be who they were meant to be. But, the thing is, they already are who they are, and it's pretty dang good.

I just need to figure out how to tell them so.

Photo courtesy Jasmic on flickr (cc)

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kelly said...

Glad I sent a link your way you could benefit from. For at least a year now I have been trying to share in the way Naomi (and other authors and spiritual teachers) describes and details... and I still accidentally say (or think), "What GOOD (meaning: highly convenient to me) kids".

Do I love my kids? Of course, and I loved them back when I praised/evaluated them regularly, too. If I "slip up" and evaluate them on "good"/"bad" am I a horrid parent? No. Are the concepts these teachers talk about entirely important and worth pursuing? Oh yes. Are they different than praise/reinforcement/gentle discipline models? Yes, indeed.

Most parents can't let go of the idea that they have "the right and responsibility to mold them to be who they were meant to be". In fact this is such the norm, the mainstream. Shifting my awareness from this concept and the behaviors evidenced therein has benefitted my family in ways too numerous to count! Liberating, wonderful, so much less stress in our lives, so much more awareness and in-the-moment presence, enjoyment, and such strong kids...

Thanks for your (mini-)series on "good"!

Unknown said...

What a wonderful post, Lauren! Thank you so much for continuing the conversation. I, too, have been struggling with what I SHOULD say, and what I feel comfortable saying in instances when I might praise my child. It's so tricky to figure out how to express the joy I feel around my son to him without adding a value judgment to it. Thanks also for the further reading!

Momma Jorje said...

How very timely! This has been something on my own mind for a while now, based on reading parenting stuff online. Your post actually makes me feel better about some of the ways I express love to my older daughter. Sometimes (mostly when driving), I just express simply that I love her or some quirk of hers. How much fun "x" is or something along those lines.

I hope I can get through to her this way because she is definitely praise-driven and even fishes for compliments. It drives me nuts!

Dawn said...

I guess the concept of not using evaluative statements and the presumed necessity for a prohibition on them is relatively new to me, but a couple of things come to mind.

Since I am a Christian, that worldview colors how I parent, and so I look to Scripture to see how God parents His people, and how He specifically parents me. In that way, I see what could be called "evaluative" statements coming from Him all the time throughout Scripture, praising His people when they performed to His specifications, and calling them out when they didn't.

But the most obvious evaluative statement is the one I know so many Christians long to hear when all is said and done, and is based on Jesus' parable of the talents in Matthew 25:21, "His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’"

I guess my point is that I don't see anything wrong with evaluative statements for helping us guide our children's behavior. If the overwhelming underlying message of our every interaction with them is one of love and understanding, then we probably aren't going to be warping their psyche by assigning value to their actions. After all, if the One who designed us uses such devices, I think it's probably ok.

But of course, that's my paradigm. ;-)

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

Excellent post, and one that really hits home for me. I, too, don't want to use evaluative statements - I want Kieran to know that I think he's a great kid regardless of whether or not he conforms to my "expectations" or performs in a way that I would choose for him to, etc. He is his own person, he does not need to "please" me. I am pleased by his very existence - and I am really grateful for the examples you gave to help me share that with him. Thank you!!

Nadia said...

Thank you for this post! I've been thinking a lot about this subject lately. My son recently started nursery school, which includes a weekly session with the parents, and this is one of the topics that we learned about. My DH's family tends to use A LOT of positive praise (including 'good boy') and it bothers me to no end. I often wonder what I can do to make them change that, but I know that to discuss this topic openly with them is taboo. I've resigned myself to just let them be the way they are. My son sees them once a week and is with me the rest of the time... so I hope there won't be too much damage by their incessant praise. I hope to share your post and some of the great links you've cited with them and maybe that will make some small difference... here's hoping.

Nadia said...

I forgot to also say that I try to counteract the 'good boy' praise that my son gets by telling him at random moments that I love him for just being himself. And, whenever he asks me if I like something he's done I try to turn it around and ask him what he thinks about it... he usually says he likes it and smiles & we leave it at that.

Casey said...

I recently had a baby who is a "good" baby. In my eyes, all babies are good babies. But, in others' eyes he is "good" because he eats well, has gained quite a bit of weight, is content during the day, and sleeps well. Nearly every time I talk to someone about having a new baby, I hear, "Is he a good baby?" I respond with "Of course! All babies are good" and a big smile.

Anonymous said...

Instead of saying "wow you are a great jumper/reader/bed maker!" I try to turn it back to them such as, "You were sure having a lot of fun when you were..." or "Wow, you look really proud of yourself right now" I think it is better to help children identify their own thoughts and feeling about themselves then to tell them what we think. Even when they are not feeling happy or proud or some other positive emotion. Identifying feelings like sad or frustrated is just as important.

Anonymous said...

One more thing I wanted to add. One time I was talking with my daughter (2.5 years).
Me: I love you in the mornings and in the car and at the park and when you are happy and when you are upset too. Do you love me?
daughter: yes!
Me: in the morning do you love me?
daughter; Yes
me: when I am playing with you?
daughter: yes
Me: I love you all the time.
daughter : I wuv you too. all the time too mommy.

Melted my heart.
Hearing love from our children is important too.

Anonymous said...

I actually don't think my kids ARE good. Or bad. They just are. And I love them very much, just as they are.

This is my own thing, but I am a gigantic perfectionist. I had kind of an epiphany at one point that I did everything in such a way as to be viewed as 'good' by others. When I finally came to the conclusion that I really wasn't 'good' or 'bad', just another person endowed with the same inestimable worth as every other, it freed me. Not that I don't still find myself falling into the trap of striving to be 'good'. But I do it a lot less, and I hope my kids don't fall into the same trap.

I will say, though, that my daughter displays a HUGE need for approval. And I do think that it is normal for kids to want their parents' approval. She will often come right out and ask me, "Do I look beautiful?" I tried lots of tricks - I turned it back on her with a, "What do you think?" I made a specific observation, "I see that you chose those new shoes ..." I said I love her. She was having NONE of it. So now I say, "You are always beautiful to me, because you are my child." Yes, it's an evaluation, but I think it manages to express the approval she needs in a way that doesn't evaluate her, so I'm OK with it.

nerdmafia said...

thanks for the post. it is thought provoking for sure. i do use "good girl!" with my two little ones (3yrs & 20 mos). but i don't feel any qualms about it. i don't feel that there's necessarily a bad side to identifying our children as being "good". the danger lies more in what things/behaviors we identify as "bad". to be honest, for all the "good girls!" and "good jobs!" that i throw around, i can't think of a single time when i've described anything (not just behavior) as "bad". so i don't think my girls form that same kind of association because i don't form those associations: if you do this you're good; if you do that you're bad. it's more like: you did a great job on that! you're great in general!

case in point: without thinking, i started the "you know what?" game. randomly, i turn to one of the girls and say, "you know what?" and then i say, "i love you." so it was a great reward when i was walking down a busy soho street with the girls and my 3 yr old squeezes my hand and says, "you know what? i love you." it got even better when i said, "you know what?" to the baby in her high chair and got distracted for a that moment she filled in the gap with, "ah wuv ooooooo!!!". it got even better when i was in the kitchen making dinner and i heard the big one say it to the little one, and the little one say it back. supersweet, right? so, in my view, they know that i think they are "good" and that i think pretty much everything they do is "good". and they also know that i love them even when they're not doing anything at all in particular. i feel like we all win!

Lisa C said...

I'm glad you wrote this post. I especially like the quote by Naomi Aldort.

I also like Dawn's comment. I think about that stuff, too.

I've never thought of telling my son that he is good as being evaluative. To me it is simply a fact. I don't say it very much, though. And I'm careful how I use praise. I think the important thing is to be mindful, but not fearful in how we speak to our children. It's good to understand where our words are coming from and how they might affect our children, but they do need something from us, I think.

I've heard so many parents condemn praise, as if praise were dangerous to our kids (mostly from online forums and blogs). But every single parenting book I read (and I read good ones, I think!) say that praise is important for children. (I think it just depends on how you do it.)

Anyway, I will think on this some more. I still think the non-conditional "good kid" statement is pretty benign, but I like the ideas Aldort gives because I think they would better show our children that they have value than us simply telling them that they do.

Lauren Wayne said...

Kelly Hogaboom: Oh, always. Thanks for reiterating that even when we do things the mainstream way, we are not being bad parents, and yet that there is still value in challenging our own thoughts and patterns.

Amy: Thanks for sparking it!! I know sometimes I feel stifled when I start questioning too much whether my words are what I want them to be. I think maybe I need to concentrate more on my state of being connected and let the words come. We'll see if that works! :)

Momma Jorje: That's really cool that you have that way of connecting with your older daughter. I think some of us are more compliment/praise-driven than others, and it can be frustrating to be around someone who is when you wish they could be strong in themselves without your approval. It must be a delicate balance to give her what she craves without reinforcing that she needs your approval.

Dawn: It's very on target to talk about your Christian worldview held up against this particular parenting worldview, because I agree they're at odds. I've been struggling for the past ~4 years or so with my faith, and one of the sticking points has truly been this: My religious beliefs tell me we are inherently depraved from birth, to the extent that we need salvation, and my parenting experiences have told me that children are not in fact bad at all but, as Amber points out below, morally neutral. I have since extended that thinking to adults as well. This has been a big clash in my own mind and heart, one I haven't been able to reconcile. I know some people (my husband included) keep their faith by altering the way they interpret their theology (he no longer has that particular interpretation of original sin), and some people align their parenting with the theology they grew up with; I haven't yet been able to see a resolution for myself. So, yes, I would wonder if a believing Christian (of the traditions I am in and grew up with) could ever embrace the idea that it's not necessary or helpful to evaluate/judge our children or intentionally mold them into a way of being. Thanks for that point.

Dionna: Beautiful way to put it!

Aida: We just came off a trip with so many "good boys" and "great jobs" thrown at our son that I almost couldn't stomach it. The kicker was when Mikko started saying the phrases to us, so clearly he'd picked up on them. But, yes, we have the same resigned conclusion: that he's with us more than he's with them, so even if he associates praise and evaluation with certain relatives, it won't be his overall experience of life.

Casey: I like your response! We had a "bad" baby who didn't like to sleep :) — and of course, we said just the same thing you did!! If you haven't read Amy's post yet, you'll enjoy it a lot.

meaningfulmothering: I definitely think identifying and connecting during negative emotions is so important, and it's something I'm trying to work on. My tendency is to get frustrated in return, so I'm trying to be patient and open even then. Cute conversation with your daughter! I love those expressions of love.

Lauren Wayne said...

Amber: Definitely! I think "good" can be interpreted as either neutral, as in "benign," or as an other evaluative statement, as in "good because I say so." I'm also trying to move beyond ascribing such values to myself and to other adults (see my reference to you above as well). I really think your response to your daughter in a moment like that is absolutely perfect and a reflection of your wisdom and connection to her.

nerdmafia: When I first started reading these ideas about how praise can be ineffective and/or actually damaging, I was taken aback — and then I really began resonating with them. You might or might not. A place to start, to get more of an overview of where I'm coming from in writing this, would be this Alfie Kohn article, if you're interested. Everything has to be taken with common sense in mind, of course, but for me I realized how much I had relied on praise for my own self-worth, and I am choosing not to pass that along, as far as I can. For instance, note that my parents didn't intend to speak all these subtextual meanings to me when they praised me, but I took what I heard and interpreted it myself — we can't control the way our children interpret what we say, so if we're saying our kids are "good," they might take it as conditional acceptance, regardless of whether we mean that or not. As Kelly Hogaboom pointed out above, though, this does not make us bad parents, anymore than my parents were. It's just something I've become aware of in how it affected me growing up, and how I'd like to avoid the same issues with my own children (and probably create new ones…ha!). Your girls sound adorable!

Lisa C: That's what I figured about you, that you're honestly not trying to manipulate your son by calling him good. I find when I use praise-y language, I can evaluate my motives and find something kind of off there, so it's very much my own struggle. There was a parenting book I read that suggested alternative dialogues for common parent-child interactions. I think it was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. If I'm right (who knows!), it had some ideas for praising without suggesting evaluation/approval, and I found it really helpful. Clearly I need to read it again, though… I think Aldort's book on Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves had a lot of good tips on using neutral, validating language. I'm a little mad at that book, though, because I took it on our last trip, then lost it in the unpacking, and then finally just found it, and it was, like, a month overdue so now I have whopping library fines. Which I'm pretty sure is the book's fault, right?

Lisa C said...

lol...funny about the book. Er, I mean, that sucks!

I just read 'Loving Your Child Is Not Enough: Positive Discipline That Works' by Nancy Samalin, that also shows you how to talk to kids. I meant to do a review on it, but forgot and returned it to the library. But I think it has some great examples of dialog in there.

Mama Mo said...

I'm coming at this from a teacher's perspective, since that's where most of my experience lies. However, my twin boys are nine months old and I'm becoming more and more cognizant of how I speak to them because I know how I start is how I will most likely continue.

I believe praise is an important tool to use when communicating with children. Empty praise, however, can be damaging. "Good job" or "I like that drawing" are value statements that convey there is a condition on your approval. Specific praise given in the moment is much more validating to a child. "You're building a great tower with those blocks. Thanks for working so hard." Some children are intrinsically motivated, some need praise to align their actions with the desired outcomes.

I try very hard to substitute other words for "good" when talking to my boys. Clever, strong, beautiful, determined, and silly are some that I use. There are still values attached to them, but at least I don't sound like I'm talking to a dog. "Good boy!"

I'm getting ready (in more ways than one) for an in-law filled holiday. I can field the questions "Are they good babies?" easily enough for now, but where do I draw the line between smile-and-nod and the need to educate?

dina said...

This is so interesting, it is something i have often thought about - that as a child i was good if i was quiet and well behaved and didn't cause a problem. I equated good with people liking me. Now as an adult, i still have to be 'good', and it drives me crazy!

Anonymous said...

Dawn -- The salient point in the article, I believe, is that the phrase "good boy" or "good girl" is often used in raising kids in response to how well they please the _parent_, and do what they're told.

The phrase is less often used to comment on a child's moral or spiritual development (in which case the "well done" would be far more appropriate than "good boy," anyway).

I'm just sharing my perspective because I grew up in a highly evaluative household and I knew all the right things to say and do but don't feel that I really knew Jesus until late into high school -- that God wanted more from me than just compliance, but a relationship.

It's important to keep in mind, I think, that God's interjections into human history to correct the path of his people usually happened generations apart from each other. It was not an everyday judging yes/no, but a long-term evaluation and correction.

The law was in place for the day-to-day evaluating, but as Paul says, he was the foremost keeper of the law as a Pharisee and he didn't know the heart of God. God himself says in Hosea 6:6 that he doesn't delight in sacrifices and law-compliance but in the development of character toward being merciful.

So, if we are to model God's approach it would be to evaluate on character issues over a long-term viewing and only then giving an interjection.

If we are to model Jesus, who as God interacted with people on a more daily basis, we don't see him giving "good jobs" and "good boys" to people. With children specifically he simply invited them into his presence. With his disciples he taught them and lived with them and corrected them but he didn't throw cheap praise their way. In fact, he went out of his way to say that "no one is good except God alone" and dismissed the brown-nosing attempt of being called "good teacher."

I think the key question here, however, is not "how can we duplicate God's interactions with his people?" but rather: "how can we raise children to know the heart of God in the clearest way possible?"

I have no way of knowing how it is that you go about this -- it's entirely possible that you're doing just fine. I don't mean this response as an evaluation of your parenting, but simply to share how the manner in which I was raised in a Christian household covered up a conversation with God.

I believe one of the keys (in my own approach to parenting) is leaving space for the child to interact and receive instruction and valuation from a relationship with the Spirit, and not a drowning out of that still small voice with a litany of everyday approvals and disapprovals that emphasize rules over a relationship. (I think that works to advantage both for a relationship with God as well as a healthy relationship between parents and children, in my own observation of things.)

Heather said...

This post brings up a lot of interesting thoughts! It always bothered me too when people would tell my daughter how "good" of a girl she is. I was happy that they thought that, but something made me cringe too at the same time because I started to think of "bad" kids because them saying she is "good" means that she isn't "like the other kids who are bad" basically.

That bothered me because I don't think any child is bad. Some may behave differently than others, but there are many reasons for that and we all have our moments too.

So, when my daughter does something really amazing - like say, she's really really patient during something important. This happens a lot because she is somehow naturally patient. I thank her and say that it really helped me out and that I appreciate her patience.

So I guess in a way I do what Naomi recommended. Though I have said "you are so good!" before but I didn't think it had anything negative attached to it.

I think the most important part is really explaining how much you appreciate your children. Negative emotions play a role in everyone's lives, so it's important to explain those and not condemn them.

katepickle said...

This really made me think...

I don't find it hard to eliminate the habit of 'good boy/girl' as it was trained out of me while I was studying and working in early childhood ed...

But it's not enough just not to say that one stock phrase... there is so much more to it.

I find it also so wrapped up in appreciation... I am genuinely thankful for my children when they do something helpful, but how to express that is sometimes difficult....

That and pride. I don't think it is wrong to be proud of your child's achievements but again... how to phrase that in a more positive and real way?

I especially loved when you sai -
"The best I can do for now is be more aware of it, and look for ways to turn evaluative statements into simple love"
Because no one is perfect all the time right? The best we can all do is learn, be aware and try.... that is something real and tangible that we can all achieve.

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