Evaluate these two comments:
“This paragraph has so much potential!”
“I can’t wait to find out what happens next!”
In an attempt to give compliments, sometimes a parent exerts pressure when what she wants to create is motivation. Take the above example. If when you read a paragraph your child has written and you see its flaws, but want to convey that you appreciate the content, you may be tempted to say:
“This could be a great paragraph if…” or “I see a lot of potential here” or “Except for the mistakes, your paragraph is really getting there.”
Each of these statements focuses on the paragraph as something to evaluate, not as something to be read and understood.
I’ve said versions of these at times to my kids. Because they feel safe with me, they immediately fire back, “Wait, don’t you like it? Why are you focused on what I didn’t do?”
Which made me defensive: “Hey I gave you a compliment! I think it’s a great paragraph! It’s just that it will be even better when you fix x, y, and z.”
What my kids heard, however, was pressure. They weren’t worthy of my full admiration until they had presented me with error-free copy. They were deflated! It was as if I was only interested in the paragraph to demonstrate a mastery of the mechanics or expanded detail. My focus was on the potential of the piece, not the actual.
The second example showed my true interest in the purpose of the paragraph: to engage me, the reader (not for my evaluation as teacher).
“I read your paragraph, and now I want to know where you are going with the story or information because it was compelling.”
No evaluation of its potential—rather, a focus on the actual:
the impact of what is already on the page.
This kind of response to a person’s writing is often experienced as “motivating.” It validates what has been offered while inviting more. It gives the writer permission to add to the existing piece rather than requiring the mess to be cleaned up before deserving a compliment.
When we look at writing, pressure is the key reason so many kids lose heart. They feel pressure to write more than they offered, they feel pressure to not misspell any word they’ve ever once spelled correctly for fear they will be reminded that they KNOW how to spell it so why the mistake?
They feel pressure to move the story along in a clear linear pattern, to never ramble, to use proper punctuation, to write legibly. They worry that unless they coordinate all these skills, the meaning and thought they have put into their writing will not be “heard.” Until all the pieces are lined up, they don’t get to hear: “That story is so good, I want to find out what happens next.” Motivation comes from the desire to get a positive reaction again.
If your child puts out two or three sentences that are misspelled and poorly punctuated, sincere parents will believe they are providing motivation by extolling the child’s capabilities like this:
“You have such good stories to tell! I know you could make them even better if you just checked your spelling first. You have the best handwriting when you take your time. I see great potential here for you!”
This “back-handed compliment” feels like pressure to the child—to do better.
Yet even poorly spelled and punctuated writing can be read for its entertainment value.
If you notice the thoughts, ideas or story, you might find that
the desire for mechanical accuracy has space to grow.
You might say:
“I was reading along and I became amazed at what you know about trebuchets! I didn’t quite catch this word (pointing to it)—can you tell me what it was in your head? Oh! ‘Launcher.’ I get it now! So you are saying that the trebuchet is a kind of launcher. What great language! What would you launch if you had one?”
If your child experiences your curiosity about a misspelled word as your desire to really understand the meaning of the piece (not as a correction for not living up to his potential), he is more likely to take your comments as motivation to care about his spelling.
This is true in every arena! The goal of teaching isn’t to remind our kids of how much they could do well if they only just… (fill in the blank).
The goal is to be a mirror to a child who is taking learning risks—to show them all the ways those risks are showing up in the world and that you value them.
Motivation is internal—it’s a felt need to produce/risk for personal satisfaction. We create a context for motivation when we are amazed by who our kids are today, not who they could be tomorrow.
Header image by Brave Writer parent Sheetal