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Positive Pushing

When it comes to guiding your children toward success and happiness, there’s a very specific middle ground to occupy. It lies somewhere between doing nothing and being a taskmaster.

Your role in this green zone of parental encouragement essentially is to synergize your expectations with your child’s abilities. Practically speaking, that starts with being very clear about your expectations. Do you insist on good study habits? A spot on the varsity basketball team?

“Children need to know what their parents expect,” says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Delaware and author of “A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool.” So long as those expectations are attainable, they should develop the right degree of self-confidence, she observes.

It’s also important to expose your child to a wide range of activities—music, art, sports, literature, math, science and so on—and watch him closely to see where his passion lies. Kids can’t always articulate what they love and don’t love, which is where your observations become critical.

For example, says Margret Nickels, Ph.D., your child may whine about going to ballet class every week, but not want to leave once she’s there. The pre-class whining may indicate a difficulty with transitions, Nickels reasons, rather than an objection to the class itself.

Nickels, who is the director of the Center for Children and Families at Erikson Institute, emphasizes how important it is for parents to be engaged with their kids for this very reason. Making informed decisions about which activities to pursue is one of the first steps toward setting up your child for success.

Another critical component is praise, says Golinkoff. Citing research by Dr. Carol Dweck—made famous by the book, “NurtureShock”—Golinkoff advises parents to praise a child’s effort over the results. The more specific your praise, Nickels adds, the better. Applauding a skill, choice or behavior is much more effective than a catchall commendation, Nickels says. So remarks like, “I’m proud of the way you practiced every day for your recital,” go a lot further than the banal, “Great job!”

“When parents are too free with praise it makes kids not want to try,” Golinkoff explains, “probably because they worry about ‘losing face.’”

The other part of positive pushing is simply being good parents. Children need unstructured playtime, often with you, more than they do five nights a week of Olympic-level training.

“We easily feel that our job as parents is to provide our children with as many different, challenging, interesting experiences as possible when really, even through the grade-school age, children need to just have their parents be around,” Nickels says. Show interest in them and their projects, read with them and include them in your day-to-day activities—the rest will fall into place.

Story | Elizabeth Exline

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