Parenting can be so confusing. When I first started following the RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) approach, I started to see things clearer. Many a times we really mean well to our children and don’t see anything wrong with what we’re doing. Unfortunately it might not be affecting our children the same way that we’re hoping for.
There was this really interesting study from Columbia University on praise. There, it describes how children were divided into two groups, and both groups were assigned to solve a series of puzzles.
In one of the group, children were praised for being smart; when they had finished dealing with the puzzle. They were told: “You must be so smart at this”. On the contrary, the other group was praised for the work they had put into the assignment. “You must have worked really hard at this,” is what they told them.
And the difference between the group was amazing. When it came to the next puzzle, the children were allowed to choose for themselves if the puzzle would be harder or easier than the first one. The children that got told that they were smart or intelligent chose to solve an easy puzzle again. While the other group that were praised on the work that they put into the assignment chose the harder puzzle and felt like seeing if they could solve something more challenging.
Then in the last phase of the research, all the children were given an assignment that was very difficult that none of them were able to finish it. The children that were praised for working hard were still willing to try it again. They thought it was exciting and they wanted to see if they could improve. While the children that were praised for intelligence were quickly very disappointed, wanting to quit and didn’t want to try it again.
The New York magazine article Janet Lansbury refers to also talks about this boy, Thomas, who has a seriously high IQ but he completely lacks self-confidence. He will quit assignments very quickly. If he doesn’t manage to finish an assignment in the first try, he will just give up and he’s very unwilling to try anything new. All his life, this boy has heard that he is so intelligent, that he is so smart, but he has no entrepreneurial nature and no courage.
Even with no basis in reality, this boy just doubts himself in all fields. He is terrified of failing. It seems to be that what many of us are doing on a daily basis, believing that we are encouraging our children, giving them self-confidence and validation and hoping that they will get even better at something might possibly be very counterproductive. So, what RIE teaches, is actually to go a very different way about complimenting and encouraging children.
Instead of giving conventional compliments like “Wow, great, that’s so amazing!”; “Oh, you are so pretty!”; “What a beautiful picture you just drew!”; “You are just a great dancer!” or a simple “Good job!” we would rather mirror to the child and just tell them what we see. We neutrally mirror to the child what they are doing without an adjustment.
I love starting a sentence with “I see you built the high tower,”; “You painted a picture,”; “You used a lot of purple,”; “Over there are some yellow circles in the corner,” Sometimes, simply saying “I see you” is the most sincere and loving phrase we can ever say to a child.
These sentences may sound a little dry for those who are hearing these phrases for the first time, I get that. But believe me, it’s on the contrary. It truly demands us having a connection. It demands us being wholeheartedly there, and really looking at what the child is doing so we can describe back to them what we are seeing. This way, children get a confirmation that we really see them. We say these sentences sincerely with a smile on our face and be proud of them and that always shines through. We talk about and compliment them for the work that they put into their assignment or whatever it is that they are doing. “I see you’re focusing so much when you’re painting that picture,” and “You try it again and again to climb the stairs.”
“You did it! It was hard to zip up the zipper but you did it all by yourself!” and there’s that phrase “you did it”. One of the most empowering things we can say to our children is just that “you did it” and sometimes we add: “You must be proud of yourself” or “I can see you are very proud of yourself!”
Notice how that is not the same as saying “You can be proud of yourself!” Who are we to decide if they have a permission to? Or, “I’m proud of you!” We don’t want them to do well or finish an assignment to make us proud. We want them to be proud of themselves and do things for themselves.
So, where do we get our drive? In RIE, there is a great emphasis on helping children perceiving their own inner drive that they are born with. The incentive to do well should come from a child itself instead of looking for external acceptance, reactions or compliments. Many studies have shown that inner drive or ambition that comes from yourself is much stronger and longer lasting than the ambition that is driven by external factors like praise or prizes or complements.
So, let’s say the child brings over a picture that he just drew. It is not really our role to say something like “Wow, that’s such a beautiful picture! You are such a good drawer, good job!” because, really, who are we to judge?
Children are much more interested in the process of investigating and experimenting how colors and materials mix together and how it all works. That should be the main goal, not how the end results are. What happens if I mix the colors? Can I paint with my fingers? What happens if I put together two sheets with paint in between? These are examples of thoughts and questions we want our child to immerse themselves in. We want the child to experiment and get an output for creativity. Maybe they want to pour the whole glass of water over their picture. You know, okay, it doesn’t look great, but it’s interesting and it’s exciting isn’t it?
A child that is completely focused on approval and compliments from the environment doesn’t really dare to take risks or experiment and has a harder time immersing in deep play than a child that works from its own drive and has the freedom to experiment them with whatever they’re doing regardless of the outcome.
Conventional compliments block the natural flow of play. A big part of the RIE approach is to support independent play as best as we can and we greatly respect the importance of play. We want children to play on their own terms and we have to be careful not to take over the play or somehow have the play revolve around our reaction.
So, it is for us to suppress our over-the-top reaction that we might have. When a child, for example, looks up at us in the middle of a play and says: “Mom, look what I did!” Instead of saying “Wow, that’s a really cool tower you made, woohoo! Great!” We mirror and say something like “Ah, I see you built a high tower” or “You put all of the men inside the car! “ Do you see the difference? When we compliment too much for certain aspects of play, we often unknowingly send the message that the play is over. The goal has been reached. The tower is ready, congratulations.
However, by only saying what we see, we keep the play open. The child is much more likely to go back and continue playing. Maybe the final goal was never to build a high tower. Maybe it is meant to push the tower down and see how the blocks would fall, or maybe to order the blocks in a circle like a fence or whatever the child had in mind. We have no idea and that’s the big point, we don’t know what the child means to do when it’s in the middle of play and the sad thing is that we also don’t really discover it when we take over and block the flow with a reaction that’s simply too big.
Let’s thank them! We thank our children for being helpful. However, instead of saying “great job!” when they put the dish in the dishwasher, we say something like “Wow, thank you for putting the dish in the dish washer. That was really helpful to me.” Again, we don’t want them to be helpful for us. We want them to be helpful because they want to. They want to be part of something bigger where everyone help out. They want to make us happy because they feel good when we are thankful for something they do. We would never say good job to our spouse if they take out the trash.
So, what are the effects? Basically, by praising this way, we increase our children’s self-confidence. Our children stop constantly thinking about what others might think of them and they don’t seek external recognition as much. They become more willing to experiment and less afraid of failing and what is most important, they get to keep their little victories to themselves and experience what it is to feel pride in their own terms.