“The kind of expressions of approval that are not manipulative are the ones that bubble out of you without any forethought. Anytime you are wondering if what you were planning to say might be coercive approval, it probably is. Is what you are saying the kind of thing you would naturally say to an equal, a friend, or your boss, say? Or does the idea of saying this to your boss seem highly inappropriate?”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge
“How can we express approval when our children do something good without manipulating them by implying that we would disapprove if they had made a different choice?”
This is a good question, because indeed most parents do engage in coercive/manipulative praise—the carrot of approval backed by the stick of possible disapproval. Parents taking their children seriously do not engage in such manipulative, coercive praise.
The kind of expressions of approval that are not manipulative are the ones that bubble out of you without any forethought. Anytime you are wondering if what you were planning to say might be coercive approval, it probably is. Is what you are saying the kind of thing you would naturally say to an equal, a friend, or your boss, say? Or does the idea of saying this to your boss seem highly inappropriate? If so, it may be that your expression of approval is actually the approval a superior expresses for an inferior, rather than the natural delight expresses between equals. If so, that is something to avoid. Taking children seriously is about relating as equal persons, not in a top-down authoritarian, superior-inferior relationship in which the lower person is expected to jump through hoops to receive the praise from the superior.
If you have not already seen it, you might like to watch my Oxford Karl Popper Society talk: Taking Children Seriously: a new view of children on this subject.
As is the case when thanking anyone else, the way to do it such that it is genuine rather than manipulative is by using the children’s own standards (and not specifically whether they do what we antecedently wanted them to).
Example 1: You are very tired and your daughter, unasked and out of pure considerateness, does something nice for you, to make your life easier. You do not go overboard with praise or thanks. As far as thanks go, you simply say thank you, just as you would to your wife, and if you think she does not already know why and how what she did is kind and nice, then you explain the details of that beneficial effect on you, enthusing just as you would to another adult.
If the deed required no particular striving, or achieving, by her standards, then a simple thank you and a warm smile might be all that is called for. It depends what kind of person you are. If you are super appreciative like my lovely sister, then that appreciation you show is not patronising and not manipulative, it is just your appreciative nature, and it is charming. But if your personality is a bit less expressive, say, then it could be plain weird if you start gushing.
If what the child has done did take particular effort, or if it was a particular accomplishment (say, if this was the first time she has made a cup of tea unaided), then to the extent that she considers this a fine achievement, I would be celebrating it with her. But not everyone enjoys that: it really depends whether she is an individual who enjoys being celebrated or not. The situation is just the same whether it is an adult or child.
Example 2: You are a lifelong libertarian and your son joins the local Republican Party and becomes a party activist. His dedication to the conservative cause is noticed and he soon becomes the youngest ever precinct Chairperson, and his fellow conservatives are urging him to run for higher office. You may be arguing about abortion or some other issue with him, but you are also getting out the Champagne to join him in celebrating his achievement. You majorly celebrate your child’s achievement because it is a major achievement by his standards. And if you think he would like this (and not otherwise), you text all your friends, even fellow libertarians, and tell them all about it enthusiastically.
- “What if…?” questions revisited
- Don’t children prefer strict rules so they know where they stand?
- If children are people just like adults, why should we treat our children any differently from how we treat adults?
Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘How can we express approval when our children do something good without manipulating them by implying that we would disapprove if they had made a different choice?’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/how-can-we-express-approval-when-our-children-do-something-good-without-manipulating-them-by-implying-that-we-would-disapprove-if-they-had-made-a-different-choice/