3 Easy Ways to Encourage (i.e., foster COURAGE to keep trying, do something new, take on a challenge)

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The best gift you can give your children this holiday season is . . .


You can’t wrap it up, and they won’t be asking for it. But they need it more than anything, and it doesn’t cost a dime.

“A child needs encouragement like a plant needs water.”   – Rudolf Dreikurs

Think of someone in your life who was encouraging. What did they do? What did they say? How did they see you?

When I ask this question in parenting classes, the responses look something like this:

  • they noticed my strengths
  • they spent time with me
  • they believed in me
  • they asked for my input
  • they loved me unconditionally
  • they helped me learn new skills
  • they really listened to me
  • they challenged me appropriately: not too big and not too little

And yet, when our kids are messing up or misbehaving, it’s so easy to slip into responses that are just the opposite of encouraging:

  • “What’s wrong with you?!”
  • “You can’t help with that, you’re too little.”
  • “I have told you a thousand times!”
  • “You are so mean to your sister!”
  • “Why are you so difficult?”

As Dr. Jane Nelsen of “Positive Discipline” says, “Where did we get the crazy idea that in order to make children do well, we have to first make them feel bad?”  The opposite is true:  “Children do better when they feel better.” When kids feel connected, respected, empowered, encouraged, and safe, they do better. We all do.

So, here are three simple ways to give the gift of encouragement to your children this holiday season:

Descriptive Encouragement:   “I noticed . . .

. . . you got dressed all by yourself.”

. . . you took out the garbage without being asked.”

. . . you stuck with it even though your homework was hard tonight.”

Appreciative Encouragement:  “I appreciate . . . or Thank you for . . .

. . . clearing the table.”

. . . offering to share your cookie with me.”

. . . following through with our agreement about screen time.”

Empowering Encouragement:  “I trust / I believe / I have faith . . .

. . . that you can fall asleep tonight all by yourself.”

. . . that you can figure out a solution to this problem.”

. . . that you will make a good decision.”

Encouraging words like these help children develop a “growth mindset,” that is, a belief that intelligence and other traits can be developed.

“Growth Mindset” is a term coined by Carol Dweck of Stanford University and it differs from a “fixed mindset” — a belief that intelligence and other traits are static and there’s not much one can do to change them.

A Fixed Mindset can result from being praised for innate talent (“You’re an amazing artist!”), or good results (“Excellent job: All A’s!”; “Another home run today!”; “Your painting is the best one here!”)

Children who think this way tend to:

  • Care a lot about whether people think they are smart or not smart;
  • Avoid learning challenges where they might make mistakes;
  • Try to hide mistakes rather than trying to correct them;
  • Believe that if they have the ability, they shouldn’t have to try hard;
  • Not deal well with frustration and setbacks, sometimes giving up or cheating

A Growth Mindset can result from encouragement, inviting the child to self-evaluate (“what do you like about your painting?”), and praising the effort that went into the process (“I noticed you drilled yourself on those flash cards for 15 minutes straight.”)

Children who think this way tend to:

  • Care about and invest themselves in learning;
  • Believe that effort is a positive thing, causing their intelligence to grow;
  • Try hard in the face of frustration and failure;
  • Look for new learning strategies.

We all want our children to have the capacity to stick with it when things get hard, to feel excited about learning, and to bounce back after setbacks. Encouragement is the tool that helps children develop this “growth mindset” capacity.

Other examples of encouraging words include:

  • “Tell me more about your painting.”
  • “How do you feel about it?”
  • “I love you no matter what.”
  • “It takes courage to stand up and speak in front of the class.”
  • “You worked hard; you deserve it.”
  • “You figured it out for yourself.”
  • “I appreciate your help with the dishes; it made my day easier.”
  • “I believe you can do it. If you need a hand, I’ll be right over here.”

Unlike praise, you can give encouragement any time at all, even when your child is failing, and that is precisely when they need it most.

A final point:  When parents learn the difference between encouragement (noticing the process, the effort, inviting self-evaluation vs. other evaluation) and praise (noticing the results, and training the child to need your or others’ approval), parents get worried that they shouldn’t give any praise at all.

Relax! Some praise is fine and only natural to dole out. There are times when I say, “Wow, you blew me away with your performance!” and that’s OK. Praise is like dessert:  a little bit is delicious! But a steady diet is not healthy.

I invite you to notice how much you offer praise vs. encouragement and try to shift your language toward encouragement.

The three easy ways (Descriptive, Appreciative, and Empowering encouragement) are a great place to start. Try it out!  Encouragement is the gift that keeps on giving.

Click here for a wonderful handout summarizing the difference between Growth and Fixed Mindset from Nigel Holmes.

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The concepts and tools presented in this article are from “Teaching Parenting the Positive Discipline Way” by Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott and co-authors as well as “Mindset” from Carol Dweck.

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