by Mina Simhai

We’ve all noticed them. Those kids who happily put on their own shoes and jacket when it’s time to go. The children who see someone fall down and dash over to ask, “Are you okay?” The ones who share their M&Ms when they see a friend without treats. When I witness these kids, I wonder, what did their parents do to raise such thoughtful, cooperative little people?

Dr. Erica Reischer’s book What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive offers some insights. It’s a perfect book for busy parents: Each strategy is covered in just two or three pages, including research and ideas for implementing the approaches. Reischer’s strategies are based on what she calls the ABCs of parenting: Acceptance of our children as they are (even if we don’t like their behavior), setting clear Boundaries, and Consistency—doing what we say we will and being predictable.

Don’t (Unintentionally) Reward Bad Behavior
For example, if our kid whines for more milk and we give it to them, we are teaching them that whining works. If we say, “No whining, I’ll talk to you when you’re ready to use your big-girl voice,” we’ve missed an opportunity to show them empathy. If children (and many grown-ups, too) don’t feel heard, they are more likely to keep whining or shouting until the other person responds.

In that situation, Reischer suggests we say something like, “Sweetie, I can see you really want some milk, and when you whine at me, it hurts my ears and distracts me from making dinner. If you would like some milk, please say ‘Mama, can I please have some milk?’” Reischer’s response (albeit long) shows empathy, provides a reason why the behavior is not acceptable, and sets the child up for success.

It also demonstrates her ABCs of parenting, by showing that we are accepting our child’s need for milk; making the boundary clear—you need to ask politely if you want it; and teaching our children consistently that every time they whine, they will be reminded that polite requests will get heard and responded to.

Similarly, if we don’t want our kids to interrupt us, then we need to stop answering their questions when they do interrupt. Whether we mean to or not, we are constantly teaching our kids habits, so we may as well teach them habits we’d like to see repeated day in and day out. Great parents teach their kids positive habits.

Why Specific Praise Works Best
A few weeks ago, my daughter asked me, “Am I the kindest girl in the world?” Hmmm, what do I say to that? She is very kind to her friends. She’s polite at school. Sometimes she’s kind to her brother—and sometimes she hits him or yells at him. Is she kind like Mother Teresa? No, not yet.

I responded by saying that she is very kind and giving a few examples of kind deeds she has done. Having two lawyers as parents, she can sense when her question has been dodged like a bee senses honey, so she asked again, “But am I the kindest girl in the word?” Then I said that I might think she is, but other parents might think their own daughters are the kindest people in world.

Now that I’ve read What Great Parents Do, I see the error in my response. I am inadvertently teaching her that she can’t trust what I say. I’ve given her a reason to doubt my flattery. When we are evasive or overly praising (saying “Yes, you are definitely the kindest girl in the world, maybe even the whole universe!”) our kids “may eventually discount or mistrust their parents’ words and opinions,” Reischer says. Building on Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, Reischer advises us to be honest, emphasize the importance of practice and effort, and praise them for how much they’ve improved.

Reischer also suggests we try to find out why our kids ask certain questions. That would have helped me to know how to respond to my daughter. Maybe she’s working with her strength of kindness, or maybe someone at school called her mean and she’s trying to counter that. When we ask why, we can help our kids create coherent narratives about their lives and build their sense of self-efficacy by showing them ways they can overcome their fears and concerns. That’s definitely a better recipe for thriving than simply saying, “You’re awesome.”

But when our kids do awesome things, it’s fine to praise the specific behavior, Reischer says; that way, they know what exactly was so great, and can hopefully replicate that behavior. We’re also communicating our values to them in this way. She suggests we try to “catch” our kids behaving well and praise that behavior before they ask for it. This deepens our connection with our kids and ups our positivity ratio. Most kids crave their parents’ attention, and if we give it to them when they are being kind, determined, diligent, or helpful, then they don’t need to resort to negative behaviors to get it. Each interaction with our kids is an opportunity to become closer or to create distance.

I wholeheartedly agree with Reischer that, “though loving our children comes naturally, parenting well is a skill that can be learned, practiced, and improved.” If you’d like to discuss ways to improve our parenting skills, please join me and special guest Wendy McLean, a CiPP graduate and facilitator of Conscious Parenting Seminars, for our next book club call, at 7:30 pm ET on Monday, February 6.

Mark your calendar:
When: Monday, February 6, at 7:30 pm ET
Conference Call Dial in: 323-476-3997
Conference ID: 218555#
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Mina Simhai earned her Certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute, and served as a teaching assistant for CiPP4. She is also a recovering lawyer, yoga teacher and mother. Her latest project is bringing the tools of positive psychology to lawyers and others in the DC area and across the country. Her top strengths are judgment, love of learning, curiosity, love, and appreciation of beauty. Mina is an avid reader and looks forward to launching the WBI Book Club with you.