Updated: Feb 20
“You can do better”
“No, you’re wrong”
“That’s a very pretty dress”
“You are so smart”
At best, these phrases, and others like them, are minimal expenditures of effort toward expressing interest in something someone (usually a young person) is doing. They do not offer much in the way of explicit or specific feedback, and do more to reinforce a power imbalance than to actually express interest. At their worst, they are manipulative efforts to reinforce a power imbalance through establishing and rewarding approval seeking behavior, equating behavior (and often learning) with performance for others, and putting (at least subconsciously, if not explicitly) conditions on love. The phrase, “Good job”, can mean anything from, “I really appreciate what you did there but do not have the time or vocabulary to accurately articulate why or how” to, “Your actions meet or exceed my standards, and it is important that you know that my standards should be important to you”. Because context matters, and because we so rarely take the time to clarify the context in our language choices, a strong case can be made to simply eliminate evaluative language.
What is “evaluative language”?
Evaluative language can roughly be translated to language that is subjective, or that requires the additional step of clarifying the context in which the statement made is true. Descriptive language is more clearly objective, or simply language that does not need much in the way of clarification to demonstrate its truth. Consider the difference between, “Your drawing is very pretty” (Evaluative), and, “Your drawing has a blue sky and one house” (descriptive). The first requires at least some unpacking of shades of meaning, relational factors, and comparison to others; the second is a clear statement about the contents of the picture that can be further developed or left as is with minimal disruption to the recipient.
Some may argue that the first statement offers more encouragement or praise for the work of a young person, and therefore has more value. In the case of classrooms and parenting guidebooks, there is an emphasis on building self esteem through reinforcement by adults of the efforts of young people. In this view, praising one’s work product is a step toward developing buy-in, of building rapport so that later criticism or redirection has a foundation of positive interactions upon which to rest, and of communicating values to young people. This conceptualization of self esteem is flawed in at least one significant way: the sturdiest sense of self comes from within, not from others.
A young person who takes her first steps, climbs to the top of the couch, or sings along with a song does not do so for praise or recognition. She does so because she is wired to figure things out and develop. She does so because she has a drive to build on what she is able to do. When she completes these activities, she is proud of herself because she has set a goal for herself and accomplished it (even if she is not yet able to articulate it). The introduction of praise moves this sense of accomplishment from inside her to outside, as it is bestowed upon her from another. The more this happens, the more it reinforces to her that the value of her accomplishments comes from how others respond, which in turn impacts her willingness to try (what strategies, to what degree, and for how long) in pursuit of her own goals, and, in the worst cases, gives others the control over even her own goal setting. Well-intentioned praise breeds approval seeking behavior (along with avoidance of interests/activities that will not receive approval, and often these efforts go “underground”, showing up when the authority figure is not around to judge), which impacts a person’s susceptibility to manipulation. If one’s sense of self is created externally, then one will be more willing to follow those who feed that need.
What about genuine excitement?
The example of descriptive language above will probably appear to be robotic and devoid of emotional attachment to a loved one’s achievement. At face value, this is true, and there are two threads to follow. The first is a reminder that the achievement of a loved one is not fuel for your ego. Or, if one’s own sense of self is strong enough, it should not be. A young person should be given the same amount of space any of us would want to be able to make our own choices, mistakes, and triumphs. If my ego is tied to my child’s performance on a given task, an undue and untenable burden is placed on her shoulders. She is not responsible for my sense of self, and it is unfair to place that responsibility on her.
The second thread is a reminder that human interaction is not exclusively the domain of words. It is possible to convey genuine enthusiasm through body posture, movement, facial expressions, and tone. It is also possible to share in her excitement without making it a performance for me. For example, I can say, “I can tell by your face you are really proud of this drawing, and I love to see that!” I can also ask her to tell me about the drawing. In those and other responses (especially if paired with the example from above), my engagement with her around her process and her enthusiasm demonstrates to her that I am invested in her and that I am joining in with her excitement. I am putting effort in to be more present as she explores her interests, her process, and her output. This does so much more to strengthen the relationship and does so without putting conditions on the transaction.
Why all the talk about conditions on love?
The world is filled with people in each of our lives who offer pleasantries and/or support as long as certain conditions are met. For some, the conditions relate to convenience. For example, a friend from back home might keep up with you on social media, liking your posts, as long as they do not have to put in the effort to come visit in real life. Or, I might let someone get on the bus ahead of me when I can see there is plenty of space for me to also get on. In other cases, the conditions relate to shared beliefs – how many people have disowned friends or family who have come out to them? Whatever the conditions, it is safe to say the vast majority of all our interactions come with conditions. Whenever possible, I would like to suggest we create opportunities for those in our lives to experience love without condition.
A relatively obvious starting point here would be our own children. They come to us fresh and full of promise, and though it can be argued they learn to love those who provide for their basic early needs, it is hard to find a new parent who does not experience something close to unconditional love for the new addition to the family. And yet, as the child grows (and develops an increasingly individual identity) the challenge often presents as how to maintain that love when presented with behaviors and beliefs that conflict with our own values. Without going too far astray, I would argue that the practice of NonViolent Communication (NVC) offers a clear pathway and tools to reconcile this. Basically, separate the behaviors from the person engaging in them, and it is possible (even probable) that one can love the person unconditionally while addressing problematic behaviors. An entire other essay on NVC would be necessary to fully clarify this, and so I will save that for another day.
What is the goal?
In our practice, this is the first question, not the last; however, for the sake of crafting a purposeful conclusion, I have saved it for here. If the goal of one’s interactions with a young person is to control, manipulate, or coerce that young person into performance, or if the goal is to feed one’s own ego by being the “authority” whose approval the young person is seeking, then evaluative language is one of several effective strategies to pursue.
If the goal is to create space for young people to discover their own interests and identity, to develop the capacity to make their own decisions and own the consequences, and to seek opportunities to offer unconditional love, then descriptive language is an important tool in the toolkit. It is certainly not the only one, but it is a crucial one, and it becomes more powerful when combined with other aspects of the NC approach, such as the tools of collaborative group problem solving, NVC, and partnership. Young people deserve the chance to figure this all out (themselves, their world, and everything in between) without having to perform for us. In reality, we all do.