Saying well done can instil a fear of failure in children
What do you say when your child shows you a picture he or she drew? Do you give them lots of compliments, say well done and praise the picture?
This may seem like a positive way to parent, but in fact it can be quite detrimental to your child’s development. I know, it can feel like everything parents do with good intentions is wrong. I'm not saying you cannot praise your child. Quite the opposite.
But let me introduce you to a different way of positively engaging with your children.
My colleagues and I are actively training ourselves to never respond with "well done" to anything the children do. This is because saying well done not only judges what they do by a certain standard but also trains them to keep wanting to be told they are doing something well.
This means they start looking for external validation for their actions instead of enjoying their own experience, which is a much more valuable form of internal validation.
Being rewarded for a result rather than a process has been proven to encourage fear of failure. Being rewarded for trying, for enjoying and participating in the process, rather than for the outcome of that process, is helpful for children as it shows them the intrinsic value doing something purely for the experience and joy of doing it.
And because they aren’t focusing on the outcome and someone else’s approval, children can let go of the fear of failure and not being good enough. Also, being rewarded for effort helps children’s resilience and commitment, making them more able, independent and confident throughout life.
It is difficult to let go of certain patterns of speech, and it can feel almost mean to stop saying well done to children. But what we can replace it with are simple phrases like "I can see you tried really hard" or "how does this colour make you feel?"
Yes, it sounds weird at first but you will get used to it and it will re-focus your child’s experience towards one that is not result-driven but process-driven. Children's role in life is to explore and learn, and they can do this best by just being, experiencing and not being held up to certain standards of production that lie outside of their own frame of reference.
At the nursery we always, in every circumstance, stress the importance of trying and doing your best.
A child might not be able to put on his or her shoes, but they can give it a try and ask for help. If they cannot speak yet, we say something like: "I can see you found your shoes! Would you like some help putting them on?" or "can you put your foot inside?". If they give it a go, we say "I can see you did your best, shall I help you with the rest?".
This way we respect their abilities, challenge them to develop, and give them room to enjoy their own processes.
Merel Miedema is an early childhood educator in Amsterdam, where she works at one of the city’s oldest independent and green crèches. She writes the Luxembourg Times’ Crèche Life column, published on the website every other Saturday.