Don’t Say, “I Like the Way You . . .”
Dear Dr. Debbie,
My five-year-old is constantly asking me, “Do you like how I . . . ?” whether it’s dressing herself, coloring a picture, or sharing a toy with her younger sister. Of course I answer, “Yes” but I’m wondering why she needs constant confirmations from me that she’s doing the right thing.
Mommy Pleaser’s Mom
Approval is necessary for humans to feel secure in knowing that we have the support we need from important people in our lives. They believe in our abilities. They agree with our goals. They would be ready to help when needed. However, it is also important to know that we can count on ourselves. Here are some tips for working with the natural need for approval from others as well as for building feelings of self-worth and competence.
Praise versus Encouragement
Balance the attention you give to your daughter’s need for your approval with comments that direct her attention back to herself. Sprinkle in observations that reference her strengths and abilities. For example, if she asks, “Did you see that I put all the books back on the shelf?” you can point out that she knows how to treat books gently. When she asks, “Do you like how I gave Sissy half of my toast?” you can say, “You must have noticed that she was hungry, too.”
When you mention an attribute that she possesses – respect for books, compassion for her sister – she can conclude from this evidence that she owns these abilities, and can use them again and again. This is encouragement.
Encouragement also works when she fails at something. Let’s say she offers her hungry sister some toast but the sister wants “not toast”. At age five, a child is limited in her problem solving abilities and might not be able to think beyond the food she can see in front of her. You can still acknowledge her compassion, and help by suggesting options that she could get for her hungry sister. Say, “That was thoughtful of you to offer the toast.” Even if the younger sister persists in being finicky about what she’s hungry for, you’ve given your older daughter a compliment about a trait – thoughtfulness – that she nevertheless possesses. This is true even if the big sister gives up and let’s you take over finding a food to appease the little one.
Other comments that encourage a child, especially in the face of failure include:
“You’re working hard to try to . . .”
“You’re using a lot of strength to try to . . .”
“It takes bravery to try to . . .”
“You had a lot of trouble with . . . but you kept at it.”
“You knew to come to me for help with . . .”
“You tried lots of ways to try to solve that problem. That takes creativity.”
In early childhood parents are the most significant source of feedback about oneself. Way beyond approval, a child needs to know that you notice her uniqueness, you enjoy her, you are proud of her, and at times, you are truly impressed by her.
Even when you don’t mean to, your actions, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language send messages of approval or disapproval to a child.
When used appropriately, disapproval of a child’s choices can have an equally powerful affect. In a healthy parent-child relationship, especially through the teen years, a parent’s standards hold weight. In particular, substance abuse behavior in adolescence is often related to parental standards. Sexual activity is likewise related to the values set, communicated, and enforced by parents. Parents also provide models by their own behavior which become the relevant standard for their teens to base choices about risky behavior.
Use this influence thoughtfully.
Although the need for parental approval is powerful, playmates begin to affect children’s behavior as early as two-years of age. Notice how, among toddlers, the most attractive toy in the room is the one being used by another toddler? They set examples for one another’s behavior and, as long as you can provide more than one of the same toy, they happily do it together. Four-year-olds practically require a playmate in order to play, and feel valued when they are accepted as a playmate. By five, a child is more likely to ask a friend, “Do you like my rainbow?” than to ask the nearest adult.
Adults can use a child’s need for peer approval to highlight actions that are appreciated by other children. Guide a child to share, to provide assistance, and to otherwise be a valuable playmate. Then point out the positive reaction this evokes. “That really made Jody happy.” “Do you see how Callie is smiling at you?” “Simpson is using your idea to make the base of the block tower wider so it won’t keep falling down.”
Steady friends are critically important in the elementary school years and beyond. A friend is an invaluable source of validation of one’s worth. Parents can continue to notice and comment, “You were a good friend in that tough situation.”
What parents tell a child about herself – through words and actions – is the foundation of self-esteem. Friendships further prove to a child that she has value beyond the automatic unconditional love of a parent. But ultimately, the most important evaluation of her worth has to come from herself.
Use your parenting power to bring attention to your child’s inner strengths. “I like the way you . . .” limits her to look only to you for approval. Instead, encourage your child by pointing out her positive characteristics so she can confidently apply them to life’s challenges.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. She will be presenting Zoom workshops for parents, on Mondays 7-9 pm, January 9: Good-for-You Food Fun; January 30: Temperament Differences.
The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.