“Take in the good…” – Rick Hanson
Last week my son received some amazing feedback from a teacher about one of his projects. I knew he had worked hard and was really pleased with it, so as I read the email over his shoulder, and saw all the lovely comments, I felt very happy for him.
“Wow! That’s brilliant!” I said, with a big proud Mum smile, but there was no smile on his face as he turned to look at me. He gestured despairingly at the screen. “Now I’ve got to write a timeline!” He said gruffly his eyes welling with frustrated tears.
I looked at him in astonishment, wondering if we had been reading the same email.
“But…” I began, “your teacher says it’s brilliant!”
I scanned the paragraphs full of praise and appreciation. One brief sentence said “The only thing that could add any improvement might be a timeline.” It was one little suggestion to help among all wonderful things the teacher had noticed and in my mind it didn’t detract at all from the recognition and celebration of his work. It didn’t even suggest he had to do it!
We stared at each other – one of those confusing moments where, as a parent, your child leaves you completely baffled.
I tried reading some of the compliments out loud in case he hadn’t taken it in properly – not a flicker of a smile. “And you’ve even been sent a certificate for excellent work…” I finished triumphantly, desperate for him to enjoy the moment and to feel good about what he had achieved. “I’m so proud of you!” I dolloped on for good measure.
He attempted a little smile “I’ve still got to write a timeline though”, he muttered despondently.
So then I got cross (which I knew was never going to help, but was an instant reaction to my own frustration with the situation) “Seriously…” I snapped, “… all those lovely comments, and you dwell on the one thing… that isn’t even a bad thing … but the one little thing… just a tiny suggestion… that might improve it!”
As predicted, this did not help!
Stepping back, I recognise the issue. We’ve all been there, latching on to the negative, overlooking any positives; getting a dozen compliments but zooming in on the tiniest adverse comment; dwelling on these things no matter how helpful the intention. It happens in our work, in our home and in our relationships with our friends and families.
But we don’t do this just because we are a load of negative beings. As is often the case, evolution is to blame. For our distant ancestors, paying more attention to bad and dangerous things often meant the difference between life and death. Studies show that negative information triggers a bigger brain response than positive as we process it more thoroughly to evaluate the “threat”. Focussing on the negative was important to keep safe.
We no longer need this negative bias as much to survive, but we still haven’t evolved it out of our system, and it affects the way we think, respond, and feel on a daily basis. Given that something like adding a timeline to a piece of homework isn’t really a matter of life and death, we need to work to combat this constant bias to the negative and bring our brains up to date.
Luckily, a lot of work has already been done in this area, particularly with children, and you may already be familiar with growth mindset and character strengths. Praising a child for their character rather than competence, and effort instead of intelligence, helps grow self belief and self worth which in turn helps a child to embrace all kinds of feedback in a positive way.
As parents, carers and teachers we are delighted when they achieve things and we want to encourage them to do the best they can. It’s a real balancing act because getting top marks in a test is great and well worth celebrating, but we do have a tendency to praise achievements or the outcomes rather than the process. It starts when they are little “Wow what an amazing drawing of a tree… err no… elephant! Yes of course bicycle … silly me, clever you!”.
If a child defines themselves with achievements, “I’m great at swimming but bad at maths”, then two things are likely to happen – with the “bad at maths” they resign themselves to that label, and are likely to give up trying or expecting to get any better and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If they are defined by being “great at swimming”, the day they struggle or get beaten in a race it can really dent self confidence and self belief because the child feels that it is the great swimming that has defined them.
Of course we can praise, but when we say something is “good”, let’s not assume they know exactly what was good about it, so rather than “this was good work”, we could say “the way you did X was good.” We can tell them what they did right and encourage them to keep going and believe in themselves. If we praise a character strength like determination, or curiosity or kindness ,and the child feels “I am determined” , “ I am curious, “ or “ I am kind” then that is something they can bring to every situation.
In exploring all this I have become much more aware of the language I use, trying to praise the character behind the outcome, and when I say “that’s brilliant!” (because old habits die hard, and because I am genuinely amazed at what children can do), I take a moment to add more about why, emphasising focus, perseverance or kindness. I still say “I’m proud of you,” because I am, but I also add “…and I bet you feel proud of yourself too!” I notice that often gets big grin or a confident nod!
And there’s something else…
As parents we are probably wired to overlook the negative and pick up on the positive to praise our children’s achievements take the example of the project feedback – isn’t it interesting that I did the opposite to my son, missing the bit about the timeline and picking up all the good stuff. (This is unscientific pondering on my part so please don’t quote me on that).
The supplementary lesson I learnt is that I can’t (and shouldn’t) try to make anyone feel something I think they ought to feel. Instead, I can support them with their learning in a way that gives them self belief and self confidence so that when the negative comes down the line they are more able to take what they need from it in a positive way.
Which, if you think about it, is exactly what we try to do as a coach. Coaching is not about directing, fixing or advising, it’s about enabling the person to help themselves. So while we are waiting for evolution to catch up, we can at least support our children and ourselves in finding the self belief and self worth to take a compliment well and to take advice on the chin and still feel proud.
Oh, and my son printed out his certificate and put it up on the wall above his desk. I can tell he’s proud of it.
“I was tired and not feeling very positive that day,” he told me some time later. I asked him if he was pleased with the comments from his teacher. He seemed slightly puzzled, “Of course!” he replied beaming.
Deborah Stephenson, Ollie Coach trainee
I am an Ollie School trainee and a Director at an Independent Prep School for boys. I am a trained journalist and worked in BBC Local Radio for more than twenty years as a reporter, bulletin reader, news editor and programme maker. It was a great job, but I wanted to do something to support my own children’s wellbeing with a view to taking that on to support others and, in pursuit of a better work life balance, I resigned as the Assistant Editor of BBC Essex last year. Inspired by the Ollie School concept I was excited to be accepted for the training course and it has been a fascinating and enlightening and journey so far.
To get in contact with Deborah, email email@example.com