One of the most important concepts in Adlerian psychology is encouragement. In fact, it is such a big concept I get deterred from writing about it on my blog because I try to keep my posts to 500 words or less. But recently one of my mentors, Christine Nisan, used very clear concise language that I thought might help parents grasp the concept of encouragement as distinct from praise, since praise is not recommended. Christine said, ‘Think in terms of verbs versus nouns.’
Encouragement is about verbs, praise is about nouns. Here are some encouragement versus praise examples to show you the difference:
You have picked a nice outfit today — vs — you are pretty
You are studying hard — vs — you are smart
When we use the language of encouragement we are helping to reinforce the belief that the person is an active agent in their choices and that they have influence and control in the outcomes of their life. One can choose to dress tidily or sloppy, right? But one has no control over if they are born ‘pretty.’ Likewise, kids think they were born ‘smart’ (noun) and don’t realize that it is the act of studying (verb) and the learning (verb) that lead to their understanding which resulted in getting a good mark.
Adler’s theory of Individual Psychology stresses that all humans are capable of change and we can always do differently. It is freeing and liberating to know you are capable of deciding how you will act. It’s empowering to a child that they can do differently. You can study harder and improve your grades. You can be attentive to your hygiene and clothing and improve your appearance.
If a child believes they are a brat (noun) or a bad girl (noun) because they have been called one, they come to accept that label (noun). It feels fixed and unchangeable and they can get locked into that role in the family. If, however, they understand that they are behaving (verb) in uncooperative ways, they understand that they can choose to act differently!
Are you sending your kid to camp this summer? Wow—good on you! I am a big believer in giving kids the overnight camp experience if you can afford it. Your children will leave the comforts of home and learn to rough it. Yes, they’ll learn to start a camp fire in the rain and swim in a cold lake before breakfast. But besides developing grit from being out in Mother Nature, camp allows kids to build their psychological muscle, too. Camp’s other surprising curriculum is helping children learn how to handle life’s ‘social challenges.’
You see, at camp, children are a stripped of their parent’s doting and protection. For example, they’ll be served food they don’t like without the ability to whine for mom to make them their preferred meal. You don’t always get your way at camp, or in life! That’s the ‘iron clad logic of social living,’ as personality theorist, Alfred Adler, would say.
First time campers arrive to a cabin of strangers. Duffel bag in hand, they look around and maybe they don’t see anyone that even remotely looks likes someone they are interested in being friends with. They are smack dab in the centre of life’s reality and feeling uncomfortable about it.
What does your child do when they are faced with a situation that is distasteful to them? Do they call mom to fix things, hoping she’ll right this wrong by getting them moved into a cabin with friends? That reveals a child who thinks ‘other people are responsible for solving my life problems, not me.’ Or do they refuse to stay at camp and demand to come home immediately? That life stance shouts, ‘In this life, it’s my way or the highway! If I can be successful socially, I will evade the challenge all together.’ Do they mope about, bent on proving they won’t have a fun time, and instead have a chip on their shoulder feeling they got the fuzzy end of the lollipop? This approach shows a child who is looking for evidence to prove a belief about life that says, ‘I am a victim of my situation and life is out to get me.’ None of these attitudes are very helpful in life, but they sure are common approaches that people take, starting in early childhood.
Yes, ‘social challenges’ create tension. Their not the kind of tensions you feel when you are being taught how to row a kayak or do the high ropes, but I think parents should embrace them with a similar mindset. With some encouragement, camp can teach your child to learn to handle physical and social challenges.
This is a great time for our children to learn the following life lesson: ‘In life, you can’t always change your situation, but you can always change your attitude about your situation,’ says Dr. Adler. You may not have a say on the cards you’ve been dealt, but you can decide how to play your hand. And that’s empowering. Parents (and counselors) can help teach this important life lesson by sharing that quote with children and discussing it. We can be empathetic to our children and to their struggle, while sharing with the child some suggestions, like: ‘Since you have to be with these cabin mates, you can decide if you want to live with them happily or grumpily. Given you only have a few weeks of camp why not decide to make the best of it instead of feeling down? Sure, it isn’t what you expected, but knowing you, you’ll make the best of a bad situation.’
And do you know what camp miracle happens then? Your child will discover that they can change their attitude, and when they actively look for ways to make the situation better—it works and things do get better. The once-bitter child starts to laugh and open up. As they get to know the others in their cabin and begin to have shared experiences at camp, new friendships flourish. And that is a great life skill to learn at camp.