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From Conditional To Unconditional Praise

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Most of us believe that praising our children is a positive thing. And it is, the only problem is that when it is conditional (only spoken in response to a specific action our child did that pleased us), then it is really positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement means that we used pleasant stimuli (aka praising that feels good to the child) after the performance of a behavior to try to get it to happen again. Unconscious or not, it is a form of manipulation because we are responding positively to get our child to do something we want.

Now, I know what many of you are thinking. So I should never say positive things to my child because that would be "positive reinforcement", that's unrealistic! I agree. Saying positive things to your child is awesome and you should do it a lot! What is less awesome is when the positive things you say are conditional aka only said when your child is doing something you like. This can create a situation where your child only feels seen and loved by you when they are being "good." This may cause them to behave "well" according to your standards but could harm your relationship with them and their ability to follow their own interests (interests that you may or may not approve of).

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So I am saying conditional praise can be problematic but what is it exactly? Let's clarify what the difference between conditional and unconditional praise is. Unconditional praise is when you praise your child for things that won't cause them to change their behavior. This is praise for simply being alive, being present in your life, for being who they are. You praise them at the same level and frequency no matter what they are doing. Conditional praise is only given when a child does something you like such as getting good grades, doing well in performance, sharing with others, etc. I am not saying that you should not praise them when they do well at something but I am saying we should be mindful of how the praise looks and feels to the child. If it feels like they are being praised only when they do well, that will create pressure to do well all the time and can anxiety about failing at doing well and thus, losing your approval. Ideally, we'd like our children to feel like we are proud of them and love them all the time, no matter how well they do at anything.

But wait, you say, if I don't praise my child for doing things I like that are good (like sharing), they won't share and this could have bad outcomes for them. I see what you are saying but I believe that is a poor view of human nature. Humans are built to be cooperative and pro-social. If our children grow up in an environment where sharing and being kind is the norm, they will learn to share and be kind. They do not need positive reinforcement to do it.

Many people wish their parents had told them they were proud of them and believe that telling children you are proud of them or that they are pretty are good things to say and should be said often. If this was your experience, I invite you to explore if what you wanted really was your parents to approve of you being good at something at some point in time or if you wanted them to be happy that you existed and proud of you as a complete human being in all of your complicated uniqueness. If it is more of the second one than the first, you were most likely just seeking your parent's unconditional love and acceptance.

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When we praise a little girl for being pretty, this is conditional because her beauty could change for a variety of reasons. She could have an illness that changes her features or an accident or simply feel the pressure to live up to a beauty standard that others "approve of" and praise her for measuring up to. If/when her physical appearance changes, she could be left feeling like she lost the approval and love that was based on the way she looked. The same goes for other forms of conditional praise. It is not that the praise is bad per se, the problem is that it is based on something that can change and therefore, can cause a child to feel pressure to meet the criteria that will get them more praise.

Here are some examples of ways she can shift away from conditional praise to unconditional praise:

Instead of "I am so proud of you for winning the spelling bee", we can say "you look like you are pleased with your performance. Is that right? How did it feel to get up there and compete? I love spending time with you."

Instead of "You are so pretty!", we can say "I love the bright colors of your dress, it matchs the sunset. I enjoy being around you and talking with you."

Instead of "I am proud of you because you share with your little brother." We can say, "I see that you shared your teddy bear with Brian, I bet Brian feels so happy because he has a nice stuffy to play with now. Your actions can really help others, it is your superpower."

It is not easy to shift from conditional praise to unconditional praise and no one gets it 100% perfect. What is most important is that we shift our awareness and understand the potential downside of conditional praise. Most of us would say that we want our children to know we love them and accept them unconditionally. Our words have an impact and the more mindful we are of how we use our words, the more we can get our words to convey what we truly want our children to know. That we love them no matter what.

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