Of all of the sentiments parents can express toward their children, approval is probably the most sought after. Whether you're offering a simple "Great job!" or a one-minute dissertation about how incredibly awesome she is, your child will soak up parental approval faster than a cactus absorbs water in a rainstorm. Positive parental approval can have significant long-term effects not only on a child's sense of self, but also on her ability to make decisions later in life. The key is to ensure that those compliments you’re doling out are sincere and reflected in appropriate behaviors.
Laying the Groundwork
It may not seem like there's much to approve of when your child is a baby, but you'd be surprised how much your recognition matters. According to Rosa Maria Mulser, Ph.D., post-doctoral resident in child psychology at Kreinbrook Psychological Services in Greensburg, Pa., research has shown that the initial effects of appropriate parental approval can be seen before your child even reaches her first birthday. Every time you mimic your child's giggles, grunts and goos, you are essentially approving of her sounds. "Mirroring a child’s language and expressions begins in this stage and gradually becomes more complex," says Dr. Mulser. "Parents are sensitive to their child’s cry, are able to differentiate what the child’s different cries mean, and ‘approve of it’ by responding to her needs by feeding or soothing her."
The babbles and cries your child makes as an infant lay the groundwork for a healthy mother-child bond, and your early interactions are critical to your little one's emotional development. "If a parent disregards or disapproves of a child’s basic needs or is inconsistent in her responses in the early stages of child development, the child becomes more passive, anxious and withdrawn," Dr. Mulser advises. Conversely, parents who nurture their children by responding to their cues raise children who are emotionally healthy -- and, therefore, good decision-makers.
Parental approval will continue to be a fundamental part of your tot's development as he enters his toddler and preschool years. Because this is the age where children start to exert their independence and test their boundaries, it is essential that parents continue to approve of good behaviors and disapprove of inappropriate ones. It's important, however, that parents learn to distinguish behavior from emotion when it comes to raising their kids. "There are no bad or inappropriate emotions," says Dr. Mulser. "All emotions -- even anger and jealousy -- are OK, and as such, they should be recognized and approved by a child's parents. What a child does and how a child behaves when she feels certain emotions, however, can be inappropriate."
In other words, is it OK that your 4-year-old is angry with her little brother for trashing her dollhouse? Yes. It is OK for her to hurl the miniature plastic Mommy at brother in response? No. “Parents can, and should, always approve of their children's emotions and attach limits to, or disapprove of, their child's inappropriate behaviors," suggests Dr. Mulser. Reinforcing good behavior and setting boundaries when your children are young will help them learn to self-regulate as they grow.
To understand how crucial parental approval is to a child, Dr. Mulser points to the findings of renowned parenting researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., who studies the long-term effects of parenting styles on a child’s emotional growth. His research has shown that the children of parents who engage in a process known as "emotion coaching" -- which involves labeling and validating a child's emotions and then helping the child problem-solve -- turn out to be adults who have better social skills, peer relationships and decision-making abilities than their counterparts. In short, they become well-adjusted adults.
"Empathizing with your child’s feelings and telling the child that it is OK to feel a certain emotion reassures the child of her emotion," explains Dr. Mulser. For instance, Dr. Mulser says, if a 5-year-old becomes angry because she cannot have a toy she sees in a store, her parent should help her identify the emotion by telling her, “I see that you are angry because you can't get the toy." Then, the parent should correct any inappropriate behaviors ("I know you are angry, but you are not allowed to hit your little brother when you are angry"). Finally, the parent should help the child problem-solve. Try asking her, "I know you're mad now, but what could we do tonight to make you feel better?" Parental approval of a child’s emotions will, in turn, help the child learn how to accept and regulate her emotions as she matures.
So, as a parent, what can you do to ensure that your parental approval style is effective? In a nutshell, it all starts with you. "Parents should keep in mind that they are role models -- whatever parents do, their children are more likely to do," says Dr. Mulser. In other words, if you, as a parent, are open about your emotions, honest in your actions and generally make good decisions, your children will learn from that. The more open you are to discussing your child's feelings, the stronger her bond will be with you, and the more trust she'll place in your opinions.
Being consistent in terms of praising good behavior and correcting inappropriate behaviors is critical to this process, and will produce children who have the ability to make their own decisions as adults. "Children seek their parents' love and attention constantly," reminds Dr. Mulser. "If parents have a strong relationships with their child, the child will seek to please them with her actions."