As parents, we want our children to improve in their behavior, make good grades, and clean up their messy rooms. It's nice to have high expectations and goals for our kids, but sometimes our correction can turn into criticizing, and when this happens they don't get the encouragement they need. In fact, one study showed that moms tend to criticize their children 10 times more than they say a positive remark.
Consistent focusing on what our kids have done wrong rarely works to improve learning or motivation at school. Similarly, comparing them to a sibling ("If only you applied yourself like your sister!"), name-calling ("You are just lazy and childish"), and overreacting to mistakes are poor motivators.
Most children really want to please their parents, and discouragement and frustration set in when they think that no matter how hard they try, they won't be able to please Mom and Dad. Part of having a great support system at home (which children really need for the long term — 12 years plus higher education) means building an environment of encouragement. It's important to establish a home base where kids know they're accepted and loved not just for what they do (their grades, soccer wins, and achievements) but who they are (the valuable person who is your son or daughter).
As John Drescher, a pastor and father of five, once said, "An ounce of praise can accomplish more than a ton of fault-finding"1. We can always find fault since kids are works in progress, but encouragement to children is like sun and rain are to flowers — vital and necessary if they are going to grow and bloom as they were created to.
In fact, studies show that students who are successful learners have parents who are involved in their lives and have built strong, loving relationships with their kids, set limits, and spend time together. This is because emotional security (the foundation of which is a loving, trusting relationship with parents) is at the core of students' motivation systems and what experts call their "availability to learn." There's a high correlation between emotional insecurity and the turmoil it produces in a child's heart and mind, and his inability to learn in the classroom.
The opposite is also true, however. Encouraging children's efforts spurs on their learning. This is the good news! When a child grows up in a home with loving parents and an atmosphere of encouragement, it fosters mental growth. A good example of this is a young woman named Lana Israel who was awarded the highest honor for smart kids in England — "The Brain of England."
After the award ceremony, Lana was asked why she was such a great student and so successful in academics. She told about how her home was full of continual encouragement, where she and her sister didn't have to be perfect, and when they made mistakes, their parents encouraged them and believed in them. This encouraged Lana to take risks, try new courses of study, and use her creative abilities.
How can you apply this to your child and your home environment? When your daughter brings home a math test with a score of 82 (but you wish the grade were 90), you could say, "That's a real improvement honey; you got six points higher than last week." When her team doesn't win the debate, you could praise her efforts and the preparation that went into the event. When she does well and makes a high grade, praise effort, not just her intelligence. Research shows this stimulates more effort, but if we tell kids they are geniuses and the smartest person in the class and then they make a lower-than-expected grade, they'll reduce their efforts and thus learn less on the next unit of study.
One thing I learned in years and years of cheering for our three kids in their swim meets, volleyball and tennis matches, and baseball games is how very important momentum is to who wins the game. Education is like that too; it's a lot about momentum.
So, when the school year begins, getting off on the right foot is important. Meet the teacher and let her know you're involved in your child's education at home. Help your child get organized and use study methods that work for him and build on his strengths.
Then, if a problem hits in math, science, writing, or another subject, you and your child tackle the problem together and come up with a solution to get her back on track. You don't waste time over-focusing on mistakes but notice what she's doing well or trying hard at and praise that. You don't have to wait until a special occasion or the highest score on the SAT is made to encourage the right actions.
For instance, if your child has remembered to do his homework for five days and turned it in (quite a feat for some kids!), say, "you've been really responsible about your schoolwork this week" or "I'm happy about the effort you've put into your homework." In a sense, you become your child's best encourager because if you don't accept and encourage your kids, they'll find someone who will, and that person might encourage them to embrace values that you don't share.
You can also build momentum by looking for ways to tap into his center of learning excitement so his confidence and love of learning can build. As you apply these principles and ideas, positive momentum will grow as year by year your child develops the skills to be a life-long learner, equipped to succeed in school and life.
Let me encourage you along the way as you are juggling work responsibilities, maintaining the household, and driving your kids to and from sports activities — keep believing in them, share their enthusiasm for learning and life, and most of all, enjoy their growing-up years — they fly by so quickly!