A few weeks ago, I was chatting with another parent about his experience with his son’s preschool. I knew a little about this preschool from other friends, and I was always curious about their unique educational philosophy. I knew this school didn’t force children to share or say sorry. Their educational model fits into what is now termed “gentle parenting.” This educational philosophy discourages any authoritarian tendency. Thus, you don’t have to say sorry if you don’t feel like it. You don’t have to share if you aren’t in the mood. In other words: it’s the complete opposite of what we were taught growing up.
“So, what do you think?” I asked this parent, “do you think they are onto something with this?”
The dad responded that he loved the school. The teachers were smart and caring, his son loved going, and overall, it was a great place for his family. And then he added, “I don’t know though…everything our parents did can’t have been wrong. Right?”
I work in early education, and I’m a parent, so I tend to be very up on the latest parenting philosophies. Teachers are now being encouraged not to say “good job” to their students. Teachers are told they should be more specific with their praise. Rather than saying “good job,” they can say, “I really like that picture you drew!” Or “you’re an amazing artist!” Some professionals are now encouraging teachers not to praise children at all. Some argue that this puts too much emphasis on how the adults feel about what the child did. Children should feel intrinsically motivated to succeed for their own sake, not for our sake. Too much praise, it seems, is just as harmful as not enough praise.
This past weekend I was at an event at a museum. Young volunteers were there helping children with crafts. My 5-year-old son completed a craft and held it up to a volunteer for approval. The volunteer stared at the craft for a few seconds before saying, “oh…. it’s…got a lot of action!” His response was awkward and stilted. These volunteers were clearly instructed not to tell children ‘good job’ or give them too much praise. So instead, they just came across as awkward robots.
Gentle parenting is an admirable philosophy.
Like so many trends in parenting, it is based on child development, evidence-based research, and our enhanced understanding of how children’s brains work. Advancements in neuroscience mean that we know more now than our parents did. We’re heading in the right direction. And yet…everything our parents did couldn’t possibly be wrong.
I spent years of my social work career visiting families in San Francisco and conducting developmental assessments. When I moved into a supervisory role, I would tell new social workers, “never tell grandparents what to do.” Young staff got frustrated by the grandmother, who always spoon-fed her two-year-old grandson instead of encouraging him to self-feed. Or the grandfather who didn’t want his grandson to walk around barefoot outside simply because the physical therapist wanted him to feel the ground on his toes. Social workers would feel that these older adults were holding children back in their developmental skills. And maybe they were. But I still refused to boss grandma around. What is going to be most helpful to this child? For them to be self-feeding according to our developmental timeline? Or for the grandparent to feel involved in this child’s care?
I am wary of therapeutic strategies that are too jargony or academic. When we use inaccessible language, we make caregivers (and particularly grandparents) feel inadequate. When we promote parenting strategies that are opposed to the way people grew up, it can have the same effect. Children shouldn’t be forced to share. Children shouldn’t be forced to say sorry when they hurt someone. These concepts may carry weight, but they are also challenging to implement and go against the cultural values held by many of us, particularly those from previous generations.
There is still a place for your instincts as a parent.
We cannot allow ourselves to get parenting strategies into not being able to talk to our children. Everything our parents did was not wrong. Some of it was. But so much has not changed. Children notice when adults show up as their genuine selves. They sense when we are trying too hard, acting too eager, or forced.
A friend recently asked me what she should do about her nanny’s frequent use of “good job” when praising her one-year-old. The friend wondered if it would be appropriate to ask the nanny to use different words or minimize praise. This nanny is a woman in her 60s who has cared for children (her own and others) for generations. She wasn’t born in this country, and she doesn’t speak English. She is also entirely devoted to the little girl.
“No,” I told my friend. This adult is giving this young child such an invaluable gift by being there and unconditionally loving and supporting this little one. This caregiver has given this gift to generations of children. The last thing we want to do is make her feel that she is doing this job poorly.
We might have some great new ideas, but none of them are more precious than relationships like this. People need to be allowed to show up genuinely for children. Children see that, and it’s far more important than the specific words you used when they showed you their picture.