Giving Feedback to Kids

When I consider how to raise my kids I remind myself that, I’m not raising kids, I’m raising adults. Now that can really make me sound like a curmudgeon so bare with me. If you’ve been following along for any amount of time you know that I believe whole heartedly in kids being kids and doing kid things. There is unspeakable value in the lessons it teaches them and us for them to be creating, imagining, destroying, building, feeling, articulating, and just all out being. The truth is though, there are consequences to all of that. Some of it wild and wonderful when they can climb taller in a tree than we or they ever thought they could. Some of it basic and practical when they inform you that if there isn’t space in your circle it just takes a couple to open it up wider. It can be truly incredible and awe inspiring when you can see the positive consequences on all sides for their carefree and innocent actions.

Some times though, all that free-range parenting; the carefree ‘let your spirit be your guide’ type of parenting, can have consequences of its own. Like consequences to parents who didn’t realize climbing the tree would get a heck of a lot of pine pitch in the kid’s hair or that you can ‘expand a circle’ so wide that there are cows throughout the entire living room. While I’m pro creativity, free spirit, and outdoor play, I’m anti kids having a lack of responsibility, respect, or general common sense. For that reason, just like so many other things in life, there needs to be a balance. Kids, and adults, need a balance of ‘yes I’d love to see what you and 10,000 Legos can make’ and ‘you best have a box of exactly 10,000 Lego’s back in your room before you go explore under the porch’. A balance of ‘sure you can paint the bedroom with me’ and ‘if I see you dance around with that roller of paint again we will have words’. We all need a balance of creative free thinking and common sense with respect and some responsibility.

Looking good and feeling good posing with his dream truck.

One of my biggest sticking points with balancing this is their clothes. Having cool clothes was a thing I was always aspiring to as a kid so I do make a point of getting my boys the clothes they want. They also rock an assortment of hand-me-downs both at school and as play clothes. It is very clear in their laundry what clothes are school clothes and what are play clothes. There are separate drawers, they are folded differently, also if you put them on you would realize if they have stains or holes or some other obvious sign of which category they fall in. Whichever piece this falls in, either common sense or respect, my boys are lacking it, the creative thinking side of the coin however comes out in full force.

They will often come down for school in jeans with a rip from seam to seam across the knee and a T-shirt with paint stains appalled that I would suggest they change. The reverse is even more frustrating though. I go out to check on them after hours of fort building, creek damming, and squirrel hunting to find that they are in the brand new jeans and race shirt I just bought. Then even worse than seeing them up to their knees in mud in brand new jeans is their claim not to know. They didn’t know these weren’t play clothes, didn’t know they’d get this dirty, didn’t know they had play clothes to change into, this goes on. I’ve tried a variety of techniques to curb this behavior and have noticed a shift based on the type of feedback I give them in a given situation. When I respond to them either proactively or reactively, whether I used gentle parenting tactics or authoritarian, whether I reinforced or corrected, none of that seemed to matter. What made a much bigger impact was whether I encouraged them or limited them.

Let’s be clear reading is totally cool, unless it was Mom’s idea.

Let’s consider some examples, I have tried things like redirecting to another option, like ride bikes, it’s cleaner. I’ve tried telling them to just stop what they’re doing, like you can’t keep wrecking your clothes. While one of these is reinforcing and the other is punishing both limit the kid in their options and their thinking. It’s like I put a box in their brain that now only allows them to think of a small amount of things and they get stuck. If they only think of two options to play, they will surely not want to do the one I suggested. Therefore, their at an impasse. If I just flat out tell them to quit ruining all the clothes, that is now all they can think of so their brains are focused on ways to get out of that statement (aka: reasons why they aren’t or didn’t know) and can’t focus on the bigger issue.

If I flip that script, and make the decision more encouraging and allow them to be open minded it suddenly makes all the difference. Some open and encouraging solutions could be let’s find other options, and heading back up to their room together to pick some other clothes out together. (Note that it is different than telling them to choose anything but X, which would limit them by forcing their minds toward X.) Or the punishment version of encouraging feedback which could be a loss of something, like the money in their piggy banks when they start buying replacement clothes.

I’ll be honest, I really thought that this one was so basic, so obvious, that I didn’t need to go the route of encouraging them through wearing the appropriate clothes for the appropriate activity. I really did think I could go the easier route of limiting their behavior. As it turns out though, it doesn’t really matter. When I think about this with other’s I want to develop I try to remind myself that there is no situation where using limiting feedback will improve results in the long run. Anything from wearing play clothes outside to developing an ability to establish and adhere to strategy is improved through encouraging creative thoughts and developing problem solving skills.

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