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Oct 28, 2013

When Depending on External Approval

We all have opinions. We are constantly sharing ours and asking for others’, but how much is too much? Would our lives be different if we wouldn’t listen to others? Would someone else’s life be different if we wouldn’t have shared what we thought about a certain aspect of their life whether it was for better or worse? Would we have picked an alternative career, job, or even life partner if we had or hadn’t listened to others? Why is it that we need the constant approval from others? Most likely, since our early years we were socialized to constantly look for some kind of external recognition instead of internal ones.

This semester, I am taking Play therapy. While I have worked with children in several jobs and received several trainings regarding how to interact with children at these, I was never explained how detrimental our words can be especially to a child. Phrases such as “Don’t cry” and “Everything will be alright” ignore what a child is feeling. Instead, adults should acknowledge and help children verbalize what they are feeling in order to help them own their emotions. For instance, instead of saying “Don’t Cry”, an adult should say “You are really hurting right now” recognizing what the child is feeling and making it ok. Furthermore, as with adults we shouldn’t say, “Everything will be ok” as we can’t predict the future. 

What about praise? Should we reward children on a regular basis for their achievements? Should we buy them gifts for a good grade or their good behavior? I recently read an article titled, “Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” (2001) by Alfie Kohn that may have the answer. According to Kohn, saying “Good Job” is a way of:

1) “Manipulating Children”: Children are constantly looking for adults to like them. Whether it’s their teacher, their grandma, their friend, etc.; they want others’ approval and would do almost anything to obtain it. Therefore, when we say “good job” they learn to do behaviors that please us, behaviors for us instead of for them.

2) “Creating Praise Junkies”: When we are constantly praising children, they start depending on our judgments and opinions on what is “good” vs. “bad”. If someone shows disapproval, they may change their opinion to satisfy others instead of thinking for themselves. In other words, they may lose confidence in expressing their own ideas when they fear others may not accept them.

3) “Stealing a Child’s pleasure”: Praising a child and telling them they did “good” vs “bad” is based on our own opinion. It’s a subjective judgment. We are imposing our perception and telling a child how to feel when our opinion most likely doesn’t matter.

4) “Losing Interest”: If a child demonstrates an initial interest for an activity, praising them for their good performance, could be harmful. Once the attention is off their performance, the child is highly likely to lose interest.

5) “Reducing Achievement”: As children receive praise, they want to hold on to it and the pressure to keep doing “a good job” increases. Therefore, they spend energy on looking for external approval rather than the activity performed.

So, how should we communicate with children? Khon suggestions are, “Say nothing”, ask questions rather than praise, and describe what you see (e.g. “You opened that jar by yourself!”)

As we can see, we are socialized early on to look for external approval. We want to be recognized for our achievements, be liked by others, and please others with who we are and what we do. We are a product of a praise-oriented-community as well as the origin of it. Learning to change this phenomenon as well as recognizing our dependence for that praise, however, can help us be at peace with ourselves. Shifting our external drive to an internal drive may just become our greatest motivation. 
Alejandra Delgado is a counselor-in-training at the University of Florida. She volunteers as a Crisis Line Counselor and works as the School-Based Program Specialist at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Florida.  

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