Why Telling Your Child to Feel Proud of Their Work Can Backfire

Let’s set the scene. Like many super-involved parents, you’ve been checking the school portal, keeping up with your child’s daily performance. There it is. You’ve been waiting for this moment. On the page before you is proof that your kid can be a high achiever. It’s a big jump in the English grade!

You may be curious, or even a bit suspicious. What led to this? Why now, and what about all of those missed opportunities earlier in the year? You dive into the page to get more details. There it is: an A on the most recent test. “I knew it,” you tell yourself. “Taking away video games the day before the test was totally worth it.” You feel surprisingly relieved, since to be honest, you were a bit harsh with the punishment. Looking back, you wonder why it was necessary to have to punish your kid to do something they are expected to do anyway.

What will you say when they come home? Should you tell your child:

  • When you don’t play video games, your school performance improves. So no more games except on Fridays after school.
  • You should be proud of yourself. Look what happens when you apply yourself.
  • You have so much potential. I’m going to study with you on a regular basis.
  • None of the above

A variety of motivation research says none of the above. Rather than (1) creating a conflict around something the child wants, (2) telling your kid what to do and how to feel,  or (3) swooping in to save them and their “potential”, there are more effective ways.

  1. Don’t jump to conclusions about the cause of your kid’s performance. You would need to run your own “clean” research study to really know that the English test performance and the punishment by removing video games are more than loosely related. It’s far more likely that the kinds of learning and studying applied to this particular assessment were a good match.
    • Instead, try asking your child what went well at school. If they share that they got an “A” on the English test, ask what was good about that. They may say, “My grade went up.” You can respond with another question at this point. “What can you do to get more good things like this?”  At that point, stop your line of questioning. This is not a cross-examination, but a way to get your child to think about what positive thing they did that contributed to what went well.
  2. Don’t tell your child how to feel about their performance. When you do, you deny them the chance to have their own feelings about it, and you impose your motivated feelings onto them.
    • Instead, know that a student’s future independent behaviors will be driven by three things: Their sense of  Competence (I have skills I can use to solve problems and be creative. I can do things to achieve results I care about.); Autonomy (I have the freedom to make my own choices, and the results are because of things I can change.); Relationships (I can trust the adults in my life to support my efforts toward future independence. I’m not here just to make them happy with my performance.) Telling a person how they should feel may make them question the value of their own feelings, rather than becoming more aware of them.
  3. Don’t tell your child how you will protect them from expected future failure.  They are more likely to be worried that you are worried than that their potential hangs in the balance. Well into high school students describe intense anxiety about not getting into a “good college” and not being successful, even if they do.
    • Instead, build their confidence through resilience opportunities and self-reflection. One of the best ways to do this is to focus on what is working or did work well, even in a challenging situation. Potential is unknowable, and tying future value to being chosen by something external to yourself denies the joy of small wins. These tiny moments of joy, and not the big achievements in life, are what build wellbeing.

What about the portal? You can still check it. However, I’d recommend that you do it weekly or less, at the same day and time. And remember, I’m here to help when things get tricky.  Contact me.

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