Aug 10, 2011

Praise vs. Positive I-Messages

An Alternative to Praise
(excerpted from the P.E.T. textbook)

When I first started P.E.T., I-Messages were presented solely as an effective method for confronting children when their behavior was unacceptable. Many parents were puzzled by this limited use of the I-Message and asked perceptively, "Why not use the I-Message to communicate your positive or appreciative feelings when your kid's behavior is acceptable?"
I've always been ambivalent about sending messages that contained positive evaluations, largely because of my conviction that praising kids is often manipulative and at times even destructive to the parent-child relationship. My argument went something like this:
Praising kids is often motivated by the parent's intent to get them to do what the parent has already decided is best for them to do. Or conversely, parents praise with the hope that the child will not do what they think he should not do but instead will repeat the "good" behavior that's been rewarded by the parent's praise.
Psychologists have proven beyond any doubt, in literally thousands of experiments with humans and animals, that giving a reward just after certain behavior has occurred will "reinforce" that behavior - that is, increase the chances that the behavior will occur again. So rewards do work. Each of us goes through life repeating behaviors that in the past brought us some kind of reward. It's logical. We do things, again and again, because in the past they have somehow given us what we needed or wanted - we have been rewarded. Praise, of course, is one kind of reward. At least that's what most people believe. So why not make a systematic effort to praise kids for "good" behavior? Why not also punish kids for "bad" behavior, since we also have proof that punishment extinguishes behavior - reduces the probability of its being repeated. But punishment is not what I'm examining here (later I'll have more to say about that).
No idea is more entrenched in parent-child relations than the notion that kids should be praised for "good" behaviors. To many parents it is tantamount to heresy to question this principle. Certainly most books and articles about parenthood recommend it.
However, pitfalls lie in the path of parents who use praise (and other forms of reward) as a way of shaping their children's behavior. First, to be effective, praise must be felt by the child as a reward. In many cases, this does not happen. If a parent praises a child for some activity, the parent judged "good" but the child did not, then praise is often rejected or denied by the child.
PARENT: You're getting to be such a good little swimmer.
CHILD: I'm not half as good as Laurie.
PARENT: Honey, you played a great game.
CHILD: I did not, I feel horrible. I should've won.
It was only natural to ask, "If the I-Message is a more constructive way of motivating a child to modify behavior that's unacceptable to parents, could it also be a more constructive way of communicating positive feelings - appreciation, pleasure, gratitude, relief, thankfulness, happiness?"
Usually when parents praise their children it comes out as a You-Message, almost without exception:
"You're being such a good boy!"
"You did a great job!"
"You behaved so well at the restaurant!"
"You're doing so much better in school!"

Note that all these messages contain a judgment, an evaluation of the child.
Contrast them with these Positive I-Messages:
"I really appreciate your taking out the trash even though it's my job - thanks a lot!"
"Thanks for picking up your brother at the airport - that saved me a trip. I sure appreciate it."
"When you let me know when you'll be home, I feel relieved because then I don't worry about you."

Positive I-Messages are not likely to be interpreted as manipulative and controlling the way praise usually is as long as these two conditions are met:
  1. The parent is not consciously trying to use the messages to influence the child to repeat the desired behavior (to modify the child's future behavior).
  2. The message is simply a vehicle for communicating a spontaneously experienced temporary feeling - that is, the feeling is genuine and real, as well as here and now.
Adding this concept to the P.E.T. model provides justification for parents to share their positive feelings when they spontaneously feel appreciative, without the risks inherent praise. Previously, I'm afraid that when I cautioned parents against praising their kids, I left them puzzled, frustrated, and with no constructive way of communicating the positive feelings.

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