Perspectives

In praise of parents and children


 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of children, teenagers, and parents worldwide. While some families are experiencing the unburdening of overly packed schedules and may be having a romantic or nostalgic “Little House on the Prairie” experience, for most it is at a minimum uncomfortable and inconvenient. For others it’s unbearable as they experience loss and feel relationship strain intensified by social distancing, seclusion, or quarantine. Some children have found respite from bullying at school, while other children have lost their only respite from being mistreated at home. Now may be as critical a time as ever for health care providers to listen carefully, empathize, validate, and proactively reach out to provide encouraging guidance and counsel, as well as express concern for families and children.

Mother giving high five to son at table with laptop and papers damircudic/E+

Many parents across the country are taking on an enormous, unanticipated task. Many parents have lost employment and income, while many mandatory professionals now struggle to keep up with increased work hours and work stress. Parents are trying to become multitaskers who assume the role of the music teacher, the soccer coach, the drama instructor, the friend, and of course their original role as a parent.

This seems an appropriate time to consider the work of Donald W. Winnicott, FRCP, the English pediatrician known for the concept of the “good enough parent.”1 This notion of parental competence was in part born out of a desire to defend parents against possible erosion of their confidence in following loving instincts by encroachment from professional expertise. The concept of the “good enough” parent is also related to the idea that young children who believe their parent is perfect will eventually know better. Now is a fitting time for pediatricians to buoy up imperfect but striving parents who are plenty “good enough” as they follow loving instincts to support their children during unforeseen changes associated with the pandemic.

Social distancing has led to family condensing. Many parents and children remain within the same four walls all day, every day. For many parents, the outlet of water cooler banter or yoga classes is gone. Even the commute home, with all its frustration, may have allowed decompression in the form of an audiobook, favorite music, or verbal transference of frustration onto the stranger who just cut you off. That commute might be gone too. Now, for many the good, bad, and the ugly is all happening at home. The 3-year-old may still adorably see a parent who can do no wrong, but in the end, the truth will prevail. A timely word of encouragement to parents: It’s okay to not be omnipotent. In fact, it will help children have a richer view of the world and more realistic expectations of themselves.

For children, they’ll need praise too, and the upheaval caused by the pandemic may be a fitting opportunity to make that praise more meaningful. But sports are off, the school musical is canceled, and the spelling bee is gone. The dojo is closed, the art fair is postponed, and the dance recital isn’t happening. Report cards in many schools may now transition from letter grades to pass/fail. Parents may be asking, “How on earth are we going to celebrate and praise the children?” As we’re left with fewer and fewer outcomes to celebrate, we may be left celebrating the effort, which is exactly what we should be doing in the first place.

Research has shown us that praising the process is more valuable than praising the person.2 If Lucy participates in a soccer game and Javier gets his math results back, there are many possible approaches to praise. “You scored a goal!” or “You got an A on your math test!” is outcome- or product-focused praise. “You’re a good soccer player” or “You’re smart at math!” is person-focused praise. Instead, the most effective praise is process-focused praise: “You worked hard and ran hard even when it looked tiring” or “I noticed that you kept trying different strategies on those math problems until you figured them out.”

Dr. Peter R. Jackson, department of psychiatry, University of Vermont, Burlington

Dr. Peter R. Jackson

This may be a time when children face less comparison, less ranking, and receive less direct reward. With help, they can focus more on the process of learning and less on the outcomes of learning. They may more readily enjoy the efforts in their hobbies, not just the outcomes of their hobbies. When children receive praise for their work, effort, and actions rather than outcomes, externally validating things may be pleasantly replaced by internally validating traits. With process praise, children are more likely to feel self-confident, to set higher learning goals, and to accurately believe that intelligence is related to effort rather than a fixed trait that has been divided up among haves and have nots.3

Families currently face immense change, uncertainty, and discouragement largely unprecedented in their lifetimes. As care providers, we can look to lasting principles as we encourage parents in their provision of love. We can effectively provide praise and celebrate effort using evidence-based strategies uniquely fitted to our current circumstances. As we do this, we can provide healing of some of the less visible ailments associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Jackson is in the department of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, Burlington. He said he had no relevant financial disclosures. Email Dr. Jackson at [email protected].

References

1. “The Child, the Family, and the Outside World.” London: Penguin; 1973. p. 173.

2. Dev Psychol. 1999;35(3):835-47.

3. J Exp Child Psychol. 2018;173:116-35.

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