When I was a teenager, I heard the phrase “praise sweetens labor.” I often think of this when I am working on a new project with children and teens. When a task seems daunting, words of encouragement can help to spur new energy for the chore.
Just a week ago I was with my nephew who had to put together a model of The White House. He has a great mind for figuring and tinkering. He was able to look at the package of parts, examine the diagram and picture and put together the basic framework. Then came the detailed smaller parts; his pace slowed and he put his head in his hands in frustration. I looked at him and said just a few words of reassurance, allowed him to take a break he came back with enthusiasm and practically finished the entire project in one setting.
Often when we are doing team building games in our Rites of Passage program, we reach points of “storming” where the group is falling apart, they are convinced that they can’t accomplish the task, they start to argue and want to give up. The leader gives them a chance to stop, examine their strategy, offers praise for what they have done thus far, no matter how little, then offers a chance to re-think the process. When this happens, 95% of the time there is success.
I know there are other schools of thought on this issue— teens have to be toughened for the rough road in life, don’t be too soft or they won’t take you seriously, kids need discipline! These approaches have validity and when used in combination with praise makes a difference in how an adolescent learns to view the world. I know teens who don’t trust themselves to accomplish goals, have no faith in others to help them and feel just generally that the world is a pretty crappy place. In my view, a lot of this stems from a lack of encouragement. It doesn’t have to be big events, big ideas, but the small things that are celebrated along the way.
Recently I was with a dear friend who has twin toddler girls who were in the stage of being potty trained. When one used the potty she clapped hands and praised her; the little one did a happy jig and they celebrated. I also remembered times when parents of small children hung their drawings on the wall, gave a hug for something done. And just yesterday I saw the Ben Carson story and was touched by a mother who spoke words of hope, confidence to her sons, she expressed trust in what her children could accomplish even in the midst of dire circumstances and he became a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon.
I know teens can sometimes be surly, belligerent, coarse and self-centered and there may be many developmental explanations for their moodiness and disobedience; however, we need to find ways to celebrate the small things along the way. This is true not only for parents but also for the entire community of adults. We need to find ways to speak a positive word to a young person we don’t even know..
I believe that there is genius in every one of some sort or another, especially teens. They need affirmation of their effort to help them attempt the next step. This is true for their work at home, school and in the broader community.