24 October 2011

unschool monday :: praise

This may shock you. Then again, maybe it won't... The owlets are not good girls. They are just children. Awesome, fantastic, lovely, friendly, grumpy, messy, ordinary children. They are not naughty. Occasionally they do things that exasperate me. Say things or do things I'd rather they didn't. But naughty isn't a word we use to describe them or their actions. And they are never good girls.

It seems that from birth we are keen to create 'good' children. Good adults. As babies, we are expected to sleep all night, feed four hourly and play happily on the floor in between times. "Is she a good baby?" My neighbour asks me that often. We reward children by telling them how good they are and so they learn that we are happiest when they do what we want them to. They may even learn to feel happiest when we show them our approval too. To expect that love comes from doing what others want. Things do not operate in this way in our nest, as you probably already know if you've been following this blog for a while, or you know us in real life. Our babies do not sleep all night, feed four hourly or play happily between times. They feed on cue, sleep in snippets or in arms and play when they are in the mood. A fact the lateness of this post is testament to. But they are happy and loved and they know it.

It wasn't always this way in our nest. When Big Owlet was about two years old, I was at the doctors, in the loo, trying to produce a urine sample. I produced said sample and Big Owlet exclaimed "Good girl Mama! You did a wee! That's good weeing!" Oh. Dear. The whole waiting room heard, I'm sure of it... I felt embarrassed. A little silly. Ok, a lot silly. I've been called a good girl at other times in my adult life (by a dentist, doctor, midwife...),  and felt similarly silly. But this was different, because I'd taught her that. I'd taught her that by doing what was expected of me I should receive the approval and praise of those around me. And that wasn't my motivation for the initial action, obviously, so to receive praise felt unnecessary.

So we started to think about it. We read a little and changed tack. We no longer lavish praise upon our owlets. We most certainly celebrate their victories and achievements with them. But it comes from a place of being pleased for them that they've achieved what they wanted to, rather than pleased with them because they achieved what we wanted them to. We're not owning their experience. It didn't take long for Big Owlet to shift from "Was I good, Mama?" to "I'm did it!!" when she was so small. And it was so good to celebrate with her. As it continues to be with her sisters. We grin and laugh and clap alongside them and let them know how we're feeling, while honouring their feelings first. Just as we do for each other and other adults around us.

Also part of this is that we offer no rewards. There is no reward chart for jobs done well, dinners eaten or teeth brushed. Pocket money is not given based on contribution to family chores. It cannot be taken away if jobs are not done, but is shared among family members in an age appropriate way, after all bills are paid. Surprisingly, little resistance occurs when the owlets are asked to contribute. They do it, like everything else, because they can see the benefit for themselves and their family. They are not motivated by our approval, although our happiness and wellbeing may be a consideration.

So how does this relate to unschooling? Well, our choice to unschool initially centered around the fact that all the schools available to us are heavily focussed on praise and rewards. Program Achieve! Gold stars, rewards charts, certificates... Perhaps it's one of the reasons we seek praise in the workplace or elsewhere in our lives. Or why we find ourselves doing a university degree we didn't want, or working in a job we hate, with no idea how we got there. Our inherent need to do the right thing and be good girls and boys steers the way. It can lead us down a path that doesn't necessarily suit our own needs so much as meet the expectations of others...

Anyhow, we opted out because we didn't want that for our owlets. They've encountered friends who are so praised up they believe the hype and it's become damaging to friendships (and gosh it's hard work responding to that need for praise when they're around!). They've felt uninspired by stickers and rewards systems and competitive coaxing in various activities and we've breathed easy, knowing we made the right choice for them. We also know that for unschooling to work, the child needs a large amount of self motivation and if they're doing everything for me, they're not learning what they need to for their particular learning journey. So that question "how do you get them to do what you want them to?" doesn't apply. They need to do what they want to and find their own place.

Nowadays, if someone calls Big Owlet a good girl, she'll look at me sideways and say "why did they talk to me like I'm a dog, Mama?" And I'm glad she can see the difference. We do talk to our dog in a conditional, rewards and praise based way. Because we don't want her to be a free thinking individual, able to make her own decisions, motivated by her own passions. We need her to be obedient. To fit in with the group and to feel comfortable within her role and know her place, as defined by us. As family pet. Furry owlet. Not Big, Little or Tiny Owlet, who are growing and learning in their own ways, doing what makes them happy, and who we love no matter what.


  1. Brilliant post! Mind if I share it on my blog?

  2. YAY! This post is pure brilliance. I know, I know, I just praised you for a blog post about not praising! haha. It's great though, absolutely hit the nail on the head. We chose unschooling for much the same reasons really. We tried playgroup & realised how much it was an iron fist in a velvet glove... it looked so pretty from the outside, but the reality was that it was coercive and manipulative.

  3. Thank you for this post. It was just what I needed to read in a week where I was feeling frustrated at the amount of "good boy" comments my 17-month old was receiving from family and friends and strangers, to the point where a tiny doubt began to creep into my mind and I wondered if my little one (and others) thought I wasn't proud of him because I didn't praise him in this way. I use the joy in my voice to convey my emotions and simply describe what he is doing. Whether it's "good" or "bad" or "anything" is up to him to decide. It's nice to read that others don't rely on praise either.

  4. I read your blog quite often, (though I very rarely comment) so I'm sure that the comment I am about to make will be taken as how it is meant to be taken, as a good natured debate, and not an all out criticism. I actually take a little offense to the fact that by saying my kid is a "good kid" I would be in somehow treating her like a dog. My kid is a "good kid" in the fact that she is freethinking, kindhearted, goal orientated and individual. We tell her regularly she's a good kid, because she is. I believe that by guiding her to make the right decisions, decisions that enable her to function in society with socially acceptable behaviours mean that she is essentially a good kid. Eventually they all have to leave the nest and be a part of society, work jobs they may not like, be told to do things in their jobs they may not want to do, but they need to know that that is what is expected. Obviously I'm not talking about things that would go against their morals, but at 15 being told by your boss at KFC to clean the floor and saying "I don't feel like it" is not really going to cut it. My daughter is now 14 and we'll be dealing with these things very shortly, I wonder how you would go explaining these sorts of things to your girls when they are at a similar age. (I am actually really asking, I am curious)

    I hope that I haven't offended you, or any other readers of your blog, that wasn't my intention, just wanted to express my opinion.

  5. Yep we're a non-praise household too. They are exposed to it a lot though, and DD2 has started with the "good going!" and all that due to Dora gah. When she says good girl to me I have to laugh though, as I never say it to her! I remember DD1 going through a phase where she wanted to hear it but now she's more aware of what praise is about. I tell them I love them freely, and I can't help but glow at their accomplishments, but I'm also keen to foster in them personal pride in what they do, not based on external rewards.

  6. Hey Selina,

    No offence taken, but thanks for raising an interesting point... the real world. The thing is, our owlets are living in it now, so we choose to treat them as we do other people around us. I don't praise my husband when he does something well, or helpful, nor do I praise my friends. I'm happy for them, or I thank them. But I don't tell them they are good. I'm sorry you took offence to my daughter's observations, but they were merely that. The honest observations of an eight year old.

    You are right, guidance is important. We do offer guidance to our children, but it's not coercive or in the form of praise. Guidance and praise can be exclusive of one another. Without praise, children are motivated to do things of their own accord and take personal pride in their achievements, without seeking my approval. They know they did something good, and take pride in it and share that happiness with me on occasion, as I share my wins with them, or my partner.

    When they work inside, or outside the nest, they understand (to use your example), that cleaning the floor is part of the job they are undertaking, of their own accord. We would hope that they are working because they have a goal in sight, such as making money or because they love the job. Not because I, or anyone else thinks they should. If they hate the job, or do not do well at it, this does not mean they are bad, just not suited to it and we'd hope they'd recognise that and move onto something else. What we'd hope is that they wouldn't end up in a job they hate in the first place. "I don't feel like it" does not come into the equation if they are motivated to do the job. They understand it is part of the whole job, so they do it. Just as they do chores at home when we ask.

    I hope that's made things a little clearer... The articles I linked to in the post are much more detailed and researched and well written and explain what we are doing and why. I understand it may not work for every household, but it works for ours, and especially when it comes to unschooling where self motivation is key.

  7. I love the way you've worded this post xoxo

  8. Thanks Shae :) It's a tricksy one! Hard to write about without ruffling a feather or two, but such is life on the road less travelled, eh?

  9. Ouch! I needed to read that. I've read stuff about it before and tried to break my praising addiction, but I'm back at it. Good to read the 'five reasons to stop...' article. I'll try to keep that at the forefront of my mind for the next week or so.

    Good posting, Lauren, good posting :P

  10. I am very keen to do my own unschool monday post in response to what you've written - I've still got a few days to get it in. We have discussed this often at our house, and I still wonder at how easily 'good girl!' trips off my tongue. There is an interesting study that has been done with fifth-graders which had very definite results in favour of encouragement instead of praise. I will try to find it.
    Love your post - and love your Owlet's dog comment. My Smalls will probably forever get 'good girl' from their Nana and other people outside the family, but we do try to avoid it...despite the fact that it feels a little ingrained!

  11. i wrote a massive essay of a comment a few days ago, but it disappeared somewhere in cyberspace. I wholeheartedly agree with what you're saying here, especially as someone who grew up striving to be 'good' and then had a revelation a few years ago - wondering why I'd tried to be so 'good'. All those years spent doing the 'right thing' and ticking the boxes and yet I didn't know what it was I liked to do.

    Maybe it's a matter of changing the statement from 'that's good' - an absolute statement, clearly imparting on the child a sense of what is being valued to 'i think that's good' - where it's clearly an opinion. It's important to grow up with the freedom to have a different opinion from your parents (or the freedom for it to be the same), but still to express positivity.. maybe that applies more when they're older? I'm not sure. Your post really resonated with me, lauren, and I've been thinking a lot about education as a result. Thank you so much ! x


Share your thoughts...