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Situation:

A 13-year-old was honest and open with the parents.

The parents praised honesty regarding a tricky subject and thanked the child for confiding in them. They agreed with the child that some thinking time was needed on the parent's side before responding with an answer to an associated request.

What happened next:

The child confided in one parent, that after receiving praise, they would consequently think twice about sharing issues/requests where parents would say "no"/be against.

Result:

The parents are divided in response. The views are:

If you praise an expected behavior (i.e. not out of the ordinary stuff) then you get this result; ∴ only praise unexpected behavior and not the little stuff

(For clarification: Motivational praise should be saved for special, not every day things or things we always expect - less „it‘s great that you told me the truth“, more „it was very kind of you to go and buy flowers for your sick aunt all by yourself“)

and

Praise needs to be for everything you expect/hope to see repeated; the unusual reaction from the child, but not associated to praise, ∴ continue to praise as before

Issue/question:

Praise leads to lying or unwished-for change of behavior - how, why, how should the parents counter and adapt?

The child is currently not around and cannot be consulted; the parents are unable to meet for a few days and are looking for input.

Edit for clarity

The child‘s wish was to undertake something…

  1. They‘ve never done it before
  2. It is capable of doing it (as in, has the competencies to do so)
  3. It would normally involve the parents as it is to do it with a choice of how to spend pocket money (explicitly, in-app purchases in a cellphone game; suggestion from the child to do so via a voucher for relevant AppStore)

The parents‘ hesitation is based on:

  1. Perceived (in)suitability of a game for the age
  2. Likelihood of leading to increased purchases - regret of spending money on ‚nothing‘
  3. General parental angst about the child spending yet more time on a sedentary, solitary activity

Potential lying based on comment from the child:

„That praise for me telling the truth about my plans made me realise that next time it‘s quicker and better for me not to tell/be truthful to my parents what I plan to do.“

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    So what was the lie? Did the child play the game / spend money without informing you? Did they then confess? – learner101 Sep 2 at 14:52
  • See latest edit… – Edd Turner Sep 2 at 14:54
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    "Parent‘s hesitation based on:" Not the fact that these in-app purchases are predatory devices intended to use the same mechanisms that cause gambling addiction? There's a reason why there's serious discussions by governments about passing legislation to regulate them as gambling. – nick012000 Sep 3 at 2:49
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    Thanks and I missed any difference there. Still, don't we all know that in normal circumstances praise doesn't need to lying? Doesn't that mean the basic premise here is simply wrong? – Robbie Goodwin Sep 3 at 19:16
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    @Davor Even the ones that aren't lootboxes often use similar psychological tricks in order to drive player "engagement". – nick012000 Sep 4 at 10:22
37

The way you approached this matches my approach to denying a request from a child as well. Praise them for coming to you, explain why you're not sure it's a good idea to do (whatever) in detail so they understand your rationale.

It's not surprising they're disappointed. They wanted to do the thing, and you said no (or, at least, no for now)! And it's not surprising they're pushing on every lever they can - in this case, the "if you tell me no, next time I just won't tell you" lever. If this is the first time they've used that one with you, they're much more complacent than my children, who at 9 and 7 have used it a few dozen times already!

Praising them for coming to you is important, because you want to reinforce that behavior. It's a positive behavior, and something they don't necessarily have incentive to provide. But don't just use empty praise ("Good job for telling me"). Instead, make sure they know why it's important they come ask you.

Hey, thanks for asking before you took action here. It's important to talk to us about things like this, even when it means you might be told no, because our job is to protect you from things you might not even know about. We try to be as open as possible about our reasons for things, and we're glad you feel the same way about asking. We know it's disappointing to be told no. As you get older and more experienced with the possible outcomes of choices, you'll have more ability to make these choices without asking us - and that's okay! But if you're ever not sure if we'll think something is okay, please make sure you're asking first. It's worse for all of us if you do something that isn't safe without asking.

When they mention that they just won't tell you in the future, this is what you come back to: it's important for them to ask, and it will lead to a poor outcome for all involved if they do something that's not okay.

All of this goes together though with other parenting techniques at this age. At 13, they're getting more independent, and need more independence; make sure you recognize that, but also make sure you help them see that they're gaining more independence. Talk about it explicitly.

You're a teenager now; that means you have more independence, such as you're able to stay out until 10pm on weekends, and we don't sit and watch you do your homework - we trust that you'll take care of the things you need to take care of. That comes with our trust, though; as long as you prove you earn our trust, by checking with us before doing something you think we might be concerned with, and by being truthful to us, you'll continue to earn more independence, and earn more "yes"s when we're not sure about something - if you've proven yourself mature and trustworthy, it's more likely to be okay to do things you wouldn't otherwise be alright doing.

That both shows them the good side of things in the future - more freedom - but also points out to them the downsides of making poor use of that freedom. I wouldn't be too explicit about consequences here - the point is to praise them for their maturity and trustworthiness, after all - but make sure it's understood that the benefits do come only to those who earn them.

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  • Lovely, thanks. Kinda my thoughts but much more eloquently expressed! – Edd Turner Sep 2 at 15:10
  • @EddTurner: You may also want to mention to your children openly that you care for them and hence want to do your best to protect them, and you can do this best if they trust you to. For a simple example, when they are too young to understand how dangerous fire is, you have to keep them away from the stove, and this is an example of Joe's "to protect you from things you might not even know about". It may look interesting from far, but it may be harmful if you touch it. Also, you must figure out what exactly are your reasons for forbidding them to get something, so that you have a solid basis. – user21820 Sep 3 at 16:33
2

I think it is interesting how your child confided you with such an internal thought. But you seem inclined to with-hold your own thinking from your child. I don't mean to be rude, it's just a contrast. You should be able to explain to your child, the issues with that reasoning. Almost like you talk your spouse. We often underestimate what kids can understand. And even if he (or she) did not understand now, or did not show it, it's a good exercise.

Points to bring up with kid.

  • Accomplishment makes you feel much better than praise.
  • Keeping silent on their goals. Would be equivalent to parents stopping praise in return. Neither of them gets anywhere.
  • Parent love is not tied to praise or accomplishment.
  • Was there some goal that they were not praised for?
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  • Thanks for your thoughts! I won‘t be seeing my child until tomorrow, and I from what I understand the issue has moved on, without me being privy to the conversation. I found your pointers very handy, thank you! – Edd Turner Sep 3 at 15:30
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To summarize what I think the issue is: By praising your child for doing A, it made them reclassify A from something that they would automatically do, to something they now perceive was above and beyond their duty, and you want someone to explain how this happened and what you can do to prevent it in the future.

I would answer that not all praise sounds the same. Your praise in this instance may have been tinged with surprise that they were kind enough (naïve enough?) to ask you this question, thus cluing them in that you didn’t expect them to, leading them to think that they shouldn’t bother in the future.

If instead you had flavored your praise with admiration – you were impressed that they were smart enough to ask you – for Joe’s “because our job is to protect you from things you might not even know about” reason – they might have come away pleased with the idea that you thought they were wise and, because there be dragons on the internet, intend to ask you again next time.

Note that you can do positive reinforcement without praise, however. One way is by offering respect. If you had merely discussed the issue with them, gravely and seriously, they might have been gratified that you respected them enough to do so, and – especially if you tell them there are even more dangers out there, the details of which they would be appalled to know about – resolve even more firmly to check with you next time.

Appreciation can also be offered as positive reinforcement. For your child, instead of, “Good job picking up the living room!” you could say, “The living room looks great, by the way.” Appreciation even works with adults. To your partner, you could say, “Tonight’s meal was yummy! I especially loved the mushrooms with the asparagus!” without sounding odd. In other words, to both children and adults: I noticed, and I appreciate it.

Finally, to your question of whether you should positively reinforce every behavior you want repeated, or only extraordinary things, I believe that, at least as your child gets older, praise for normal things is going to feel patronizing. After all, when’s the last time your partner told you, “Good job with tonight’s meal! I liked the way you tried hard to make it without extra calories!”

However, and if we define extraordinary things as things that require psychic effort, I think that praise (minus the hearty enthusiasm) for doing extraordinary things is gratifying at any age. “Good job not blowing up at your brother-in-law tonight. I know you wanted to, when he made those nasty remarks.”

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