kid-baby-parentAs a parent, you often struggle to motivate your child. You wonder: How do I get him/her to work harder, to behave, to listen to my directions?

You use charts and prizes and treats to motivate your child. But what you probably underestimate is how much your child wants your approval. Your support alone is a powerful motivating force in your child’s life.

What is approval? Approval is a communication of positive feeling, via verbal and nonverbal cues. Some forms of approval are:

  • Smiling at your child
  • Touching your child in an affectionate manner
  • Positive words “I’m proud of you,” “You did great,” etc.
  • Laughter
  • Speaking in a happy tone of voice

A child’s need for parental approval is deep-seated, internally driven, and life-long. Even adult children feel a deep desire for approval from their parents.

You can use this desire to motivate your child to improve in areas that need strengthening. Any of the above are forms of approval and send a strong message to your child.

The message is: “THIS IS GOOD. DO MORE OF THIS.”

Behaviors that are met with any form of approval are highly likely to be repeated. For that reason, it is never a good idea to smile or laugh when your child back-talks, even if the child is clever or funny. Your smile and laughter communicate approval, and when the child repeats the performance, you are unlikely to appreciate it the second time around. Expecting your child to then correct his or her behavior after you have approved it the first time is confusing, and unfair to the child.

When dispensing approval, consistency is the best gift you can give your child. Make it clear to your child what makes you happy, and consistently demonstrate that response. Also, be sure to vary the forms of approval you give, as each one is reinforcing in their own way, and contributes to the child’s sense of optimism, self-worth, and motivation.

Withholding approval is a strategy in which the parent does not smile, laugh, touch, or compliment the child in response to a given behavior. Withholding approval from your child is a form of punishment, as well as a natural consequence of certain actions, and you, as a parent, may not realize that.

At times withholding approval can be a powerful education tool. Withholding approval communicates a strong message, although its message is arguably not as powerful as that of approval.

The message is “THERE’S NOTHING HERE FOR YOU. TRY SOMETHING ELSE.”

When withholding approval, always suggest to the child what kind of behaviors would trigger your approval. For example, if your child makes a joke that belittles someone, you can say, “I didn’t think that joke was very funny. I like jokes that don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. You can tell me a joke that’s not hurtful.”

Or if the child speaks to you in a demanding, disrespectful tone, you can say, “I don’t like being spoken to that way. I will be much happier when you talk to me in a nice, calm voice.”

Withholding approval can be a powerful education tool. But like all forms of punishment, beware of the pitfalls. Never withhold approval in response to behavior that a child is unable to control. Things like accidents, bed-wetting, and even impulsive behaviors that are not within the child’s control should not be punished by withholding approval or any other consequence. If a child is overtired, hungry, or in a state of hysteria, that is not the time to withhold approval.

Beware of withholding approval from toddlers: Children under the age of three have not yet developed adequate impulse-control skills to prevent most negative behaviors, and withholding approval, and any other form of punishment, should be used very scarcely. Instead, use approval of positive actions whenever possible to communicate your expectations and motivate your child to do better.

As with all strategies in parenting, there is no magic solution that works all the time. Instead, the use of approval to motivate your child is just a tool—and a very powerful one—to have at your disposal.

By Chaya Glatt

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