A mom I was working with told me that she had been using praise and rewards as a means of motivating her almost 3 year old daughter to stay dry through the night. Each morning that the little girl woke up with a dry pull-up, her mom would praise her and provide her with a special breakfast treat. After many days of waking up with dry pants, the mother was convinced that the praise and rewards had worked. But later that morning, mom found many pairs of formally wet pull-ups stuffed under the dresser in the little girl’s bedroom!
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I don’t normally support praise, but the exception is working with toddlers and preschoolers. It can be effective when teaching them something new that may be difficult for them to master, giving them confidence, and motivating them to do something to cooperate with you. The acceptable form of praise in these cases is in expressing delight for your child’s accomplishment but avoiding labeling them as a good boy or girl. Adults must be cautious that the side effects of this praise can motivate the child to do whatever it takes to get more. From the perspective of the child, having your caregiver express delight in something you have accomplished feels great and usually drives the child to get more.
We teach them to lie to get our approval
In the case I wrote about above, the little girl loved the praise she was getting for her dry diaper in the morning and had learned to hide the wet diaper to please her mother. Even though this example was about a young child, our children of all ages learn quickly about getting our approval at all costs. The caregiver’s approval feels good and a child will do whatever he can to get it.
Children lie to protect themselves from us
My parents obtained their parenting tools from their parents. The penalty received for the C’s, D’s, and F’s my siblings and I brought home on school papers was whippings from a belt. Because my parents used fear to motivate us to perform, fear is what I felt as a child. To protect myself from what I feared most, I learned quickly how to change grades on papers, hide or destroy the papers, or lie about the grades I received on assignments. I often think about where I might be today academically if my parents had responded differently.
Hopefully you are not using many of the old tools your parents used on you, but think about how you respond to your child when their performance is not where you think it should be. How do you react emotionally and physically when they make mistakes, make poor decisions, or explore. If you yell, get angry, punish, or demonstrate other forms of disapproval, might you be teaching them to lie?
Parents force their children to be nice to others
Have you ever told your child to be nice to a playmate or relative, or forced them to say they’re sorry? Young children don’t always see other children as equals. The process of developing social skills takes time and patience. When one child is mean or disrespectful toward a sibling or playmate, it usually is an indication that they have had enough of the other child and it is time for a break or for the playtime to end. But parents usually admonish their child for the behavior and force their child to be nice. At that particular moment, the child may not have any warm feelings for the other child nor feel sorry in any way.
When I was a child I had an elderly relative I did not like. She smelled terrible and when we went to visit her, my parents forced me to give her a hug. It was excruciating for me and I hated having to go near her. Does this scenario sound familiar? Many of us probably had that same experience because our parents expected us to show our respect, but at what cost?
Children learn from the example adults set
Your child runs to answer the ringing telephone as you shout out “If it’s grandma, tell her that I’m not home.” You tell the ticket taker at the admission gate of the amusement park that your child is an age just under the price break so that you can save a few dollars. I know that I have been guilty myself of a few incidents where I taught my son or daughter to lie. One day my young daughter and I were returning home from a brief shopping trip to get some groceries we needed for dinner. When my daughter saw the ice cream vendor outside of the supermarket, her pleading pulled at my heartstrings for a small treat and I caved to her request. I then taught my daughter to lie when I told her not to tell her mother when we got home. I knew that I would be scolded by my wife if she knew I had provided a treat before dinner. It didn’t matter anyway, my cover was blown when my daughter walked into the house upon our arrival and said “we had an ice cream at the store mommy.” By natural design they have a drive for honesty, but through modeling, training, and getting their needs met, they learn to lie.
In my parenting classes I sometimes poll my participants for their top ten characteristics they want their children to have as an adult. Honesty ranks in the top three the majority of the time, yet look at the things that adults do that promote their children to lie. The mother who found the hidden formerly wet pull-ups asked me what she should do about her toddler hiding them and lying. I told her that she should have calmly revealed to her daughter that she found the pull-ups and knew the truth, and then let it go.