Tell Me What to Do

June 15, 2023

Dear Reader,

Welcome to the new Smart City Kids blog, Tell Me What to Do, in which I will write about all things education and all things parent. My name is Lisa Schalk, and I come to you with the perspective of a seasoned parent, a former teacher of 17 years, and a current educational specialist at SCK. My mission is to share wisdom I have accumulated through my education and my professional and life experience. In addition to sharing observations about the world at large, my mission is to analyze and demystify various aspects of education that might puzzle you as a parent. So here we go…

Not Covid, recession, inflation, nor war stops people from wanting babies in their lives. I find this hopeful. As a parent of three children in their 30’s, I often look at new parents as they perambulate around the city gazing lovingly into the shining faces of their wee ones safely strapped into plush strollers and think to myself, “They have no idea what they’re in for.”

Why babies? So we can see the world through the eyes of an innocent? Or share the coos and crawling and baby curls with a loved one? To right the wrongs of our own parents? Identity affirmation? Is it about personal legacy? Survival of the species? Or is it the tiny shoes that grab our heart strings and pull us in?

Regardless of what drives you to birth, adopt, or foster a child, raising one is parent, raising one is no easy feat. Along with the sheer joy of it all comes a wide arc of emotions – chockfull of introspection, reflection, and a need to know and grow as we search for the best paths to follow. One important such path is the one that leads us toward educating our children. And, as any veteran parent can tell you, your child’s ongoing education will be full of joyful experiences and discovery – complete with confusing terminology, conflicting theories, pedagogical cornerstones, developmental considerations and other things that I might know more about than you do. So here goes … let’s begin our journey.

The first topic I’d like to dive into is that of positive risk taking. What do teachers mean when they bandy this phrase about?

What educators know, and this is from a nursery school through college and beyond perspective, is that students who are willing to be wrong – or, to risk not being right – are the students who truly learn, experience fulfillment, and feel compelled to learn more. They grow into adults who succeed – and often wildly excel – in their chosen fields.

Unfortunately, seemingly innocent praise from parents can sometimes impede a child’s positive risk-taking ability. As a mom of young children, I joined in the popular chorus of “Good job!” and “You’re the best!” and “You’re so smart!” as my wee ones slid down slides, hugged a friend, or plopped in the last wooden puzzle piece. While I thought I was encouraging my kids with my positive feedback, what I was doing in part was giving them a leg up onto Great Hamster Wheel of Chasing Praise. When parents overpraise a child, in a sense they hijack their child’s intrinsic sense of satisfaction – and set their kids on a never-ending quest for more and more praise.

Addiction to praise from an early age is not only real, but also dangerous. It inhibits children from moving toward deeper academic learning and toward learning for learning’s sake – for intrinsic satisfaction. American author and lecturer Alfie Kohn frequently writes about parenting and education. In his article, Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” he examines the negative effects of overpraising children. One effect is that it leaves children feeling less brave to venture a guess or to stretch their minds and imagine, for fear of being “wrong” and risk losing the praise that’s been heaped upon them. “When praise is used lavishly and continuously, children are afraid to take risks for fear of falling off the pedestal or being discovered to be an imposter,” Kohn warns.

If this is the foundation we lay, imagine the bricks that follow. As children grow and things like self-consciousness and peer approval/pressure add to the equation, the fear of being judged and losing the “Good job!” or “You’re so smart!” accolades can become paralyzing – and the potential for positive risk-taking significantly jeopardized.

So, how can we continue to dote on our little loved ones without over-praising? A small language shift makes a huge difference. Simple, evaluation-free statements (“You slid down the slide yourself!” or even just “You did it!”) tells your child that you noticed their triumphs. Children are more motivated and invested in doing and learning when we allow them to own their success. A simple acknowledgement allows them to take pride in what they do. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: “This mountain is huge!” “You sure used a lot of purple today!” These responses might sound robotic, tedious, or unimportant to you … but fast forward 15 years into my classrooms full of young students and you begin to understand. “Do you like my painting?” “Did I do a good job” “I don’t know … I can’t guess … I don’t know how.” Some children as young as three years old are afraid to jump into learning and abandon their praise-seeking habits. They are hesitant to hypothesize, guess, or even wonder aloud. And this is not what we want.

Kohn’ research shows us that children are more responsive to adults who either describe what they see, in non-praise terms, or talk less and ask more.

“Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking “What was the hardest part to draw?” or “How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?” is likely to nourish his interest in drawing. Saying “Good job!” may have exactly the opposite effect.

This doesn’t mean that all compliments, all thank-you’s, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child’s future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life — or to constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head?

It’s not a matter of memorizing a new script, but of keeping in mind our long-term goals for our children and watching for the effects of what we say. The bad news is that the use of positive reinforcement really isn’t so positive. The good news is that you don’t have to evaluate in order to encourage.”

When children feel settled and competent – and they aren’t chasing praise – they feel comfortable taking positive risks in trying new things, asking questions, taking guesses, and making mistakes. The benefits are myriad. Positive risk-taking builds confidence and helps a child develop new skills. It teaches responsibility, demonstrates there are consequences if decisions are wrong, and promotes learning from making mistakes. It manages emotional constraints, enables children to learn from missed opportunities, engenders satisfaction in succeeding – and the list goes on. And this is why good schools and good teachers actively promote positive risk taking in their classrooms.

As parents, there are things we can do to encourage our children to take positive risks. Next time you’re tempted to say, “Great Job!” try this instead:

      1. Focus on process and not result. Acknowledge a job well done say what you see without “giving it a grade.”

      1. Ask more and talk less.

      1. Model the liberation of making and owning your own mistakes. Guide by example, and highlight discoveries made from making mistakes in a “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” way.

    To learn more about encouraging positive risk-taking behavior in your child, check out: How Parents Can Instill a Growth Mindset at Home

    And most importantly, dear readers, remember to support your children, and love them up for who they are!

    That’s all for now,





    Don’t miss our monthly newsletter! Sign up below to view our favorite tips & tricks to help you get through the admission season!

    Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.