Praise and the Three Things

The Three Things. You bet, they are important.

My family isn’t the type to express their emotions or feelings with great clarity, pomp or regularity. In spite of this, I always knew that I was loved and accepted. I always knew that they were there for me. The love they showed was understated, but understood. I just chose to ignore it sometimes.Inherent to personal development is the oft-talked about concept of “selfesteem.” Now, if you’re at all anything like me, positive self-esteem (at least when I was a teenager) was some kind of mythical unicorn-like creature that pooped out rainbows and candy. This isn’t to suggest that I necessarily had bad or negative self-esteem all of the time, just that more often than not, I didn’t feel very good about myself. It was rare that, while I was a teenager, I had a unicorn poop anything pretty on me.  The scary thing about this is that negative self-esteem is related to negative health outcomes like early and unwanted pregnancy and parenting, early sexual involvement, delinquency, obesity, and poor school performance.

So instead, I spent most of my teenage years like so many others, trying desperately to fit somewhere. I felt lazy and underperformed often. I struggled to master concepts (like math) and gave up easily. I was generally more interested in socializing than working very hard. I wanted to be loved and accepted, I wanted to be funny and smart. I wanted to included and important.

The trouble was, I didn’t know who I was. And if I didn’t know who I was, how was I supposed to show other people who I was? And if they didn’t know who I was, how were they supposed to know where I fit? And if they didn’t know where I fit, how was I supposed to become accepted? And if I wasn’t ever accepted, then how was I to know where I belonged?

All of these things kept playing out time and again while I was waiting for a unicorn of my very own. I was chronically searching for a better version of myself, all the while missing the point: I was just fine as I was. I was better than fine. I was me, and I mattered. I was important. I belonged. It’s easy for me to say that now, but back then, it wasn’t even an option. The transitional nature of our adolescence is a challenge that doesn’t exactly come with a compass

Courtesy Photobucket

Courtesy Photobucket

and a map to help us navigate through the experience.

After more than a decade of working with youth, I know that my story isn’t all that unfamiliar. Adolescence is a time when you get to try out all kinds of aspects of your personality to see which suit you best. Like a new outfit, you express yourself just a little bit differently every day and hope like hell that one works out for you. With any luck, the people that surround you are supportive and allow you to, unencumbered, express your creativity and your passion for who you want to be that day.

Positive reinforcement must be both sincere and credible in order to have any positive impact on the recipient. If a young person doesn’t believe that you are being honest in your feedback, or you aren’t a credible source (aka have a trusting relationship with them), they’ll dismiss it. In some instances, this can even do more harm than anything.

Much of western society is based on a flawed understanding of praise: you work hard, you get rewarded; you slack off, you are punished. Yet we know that hard work does not always equate success, and the rewards (often economic or material) are not what we really need for our emotional development. Our actions are given meaning and purpose when we know that someone is watching, listening and caring about what we do. So the lesson here is that what (and how) we teach our children and adolescents about the interconnectedness of praise, positive reinforcement and success is critical.

The thing about praise is that it works best if it’s specific. Vague “attaboys” don’t really cut the mustard. It also has to be well-timed. If you sprinkle praise throughout the day at every single thing, the repetition makes the sentiment meaningless. However, if you withhold the praise until something big happens, you’re probably going to sound just as phony. It’s a fine balance between being overly aggressive with your praise, and being a miser about doling it out. Who knew that positive feedback was such a tricky pickle?

Using positive reinforcement as a conceptual tool to build up a young person’s self esteem is not new. However, particularly if that young person is struggling with FASD or ADHD or some kind of cognitive or behavioural issue, they are more likely to find themselves at the receiving end of punitive comments and discipline, or (sometimes even worse) constructive criticism. And while each of these have their place in the development of a young person, you are far more likely to achieve better results with positive reinforcement than with critique. This is particularly true when the individual already has negative self esteem as any critique- even if delivered constructively and with kindness, can create even more negative feelings for themselves.

When a young person receives praise that they feel is real, they are more likely to explore their creativity, or approach things with passion and dedication. They are more likely to develop pride in their accomplishments (achieving mastery), building stronger connections through engagement. With mastery and engagement comes meaning. With meaning comes belonging. All of these things are incredibly important to an individual’s cognitive, social and emotional development.

Outside of my immediate family, there were few people that made me truly understand and feel the Three Things. One of these people has stuck by me despite time, geography and circumstance, and for her I will be forever grateful. Some would say that we were inseparable during our high school years, but that’s not entirely true. We led our own, very different lives, always managing to collide back together to get into some kind of adventure. We drank a lot of Slurpees and ate a lot of baking chocolate while pontificating in German about things we knew absolutely nothing about. Through her, looking back, I realized that I was able to develop a comprehension for what these Three Things meant. By supporting me and sticking up for me, she taught me that I mattered. By loving me and listening to me, she taught me that I was important. By laughing with me and including me, she taught me that I belonged.

I share this story of my friendship with this woman because truly, if it wasn’t for her, I’m not sure I would have made it out of high school as relatively unscathed as I did. I certainly would not have been the same version of myself that I am today. Though the thoughts I share with you here speak mostly to praise and positive reinforcement, these words and their supporting actions are all a part of how we as adults can demonstrate the Three Things to all young people.

Just as my friend did to me, we can show our young people that they matter, they are important and that they belong. If they know these Three Things, they too can find their unicorn and navigate through the chaotic times of adolescence okay.

Your turn: how do you demonstrate to people the Three Things?

(Header photo: Courtesy Photobucket)

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