EP007 : Teaching Children What to Do and Encouragement

Welcome to Embracing Parenting.

I’ll be talking about a Positive Discipline tool which is, “Teach Children What To Do”, and I’ll be also talking about “Encouragement vs. Praise”. As I have received questions about how to teach life skills, I hope this episode will give you food for thought and tools to make that happen!

In order to teach children life skills, we need to take every challenging situation as an opportunity to learn together. This is something I talk about at the beginning of my workshops: where do we stand in relation to challenges we face, and what these challenges can offer us to learn and teach. So for example, if your challenge is “being ignored” when you speak to your child, then, that  is an opportunity to work on communication skills:

First, you need to re-evaluate the way you are delivering the message:

  • Is it said in a kind and respectful way?

  • What kind of tone am I using?

  • What’s my body language?

Second, you need to remember that there’s a belief and an unmet need behind the child’s behaviour. If the child is “ignoring you”, it’s worth identifying what the child is thinking, feeling and deciding. Connection and Curiosity Questions will aid you, and your feelings and instincts will guide you. I talked about the concepts of behaviour based on the work of Alfred Adler in episode number 5, a misbehaving child is a discouraged child:

“a misbehaving child is trying to tell us, “I don’t feel I belong or have significance, and I have a mistaken belief about how to achieve it. Remember the real meaning and message behind it, “I just want to belong.””


In order to help our children to feel belonging and significance we need to embrace every opportunity we have, as much as we can, to teach life skills. Taking the opportunity to Teach Children What To Do, instead teaching what NOT to do, will give them enough motivation and encouragement to try new things, be independent, learn how to manage risks, nurture self-evaluation, self-awareness, self-discipline, to name a few. That’s a lot of life skills there!

I’d like to mention Maria Montessori as one of the greatest (and most popular) speakers about independence in children. She said:

“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”

Showing children with actions and words about what they can do, will open the path for them to explore on their own.

“Giving the children freedom and choice, supporting them in their choice by making sure they are safe, feeding their inquiring minds in a way that they can understand and observing their needs and fulfilling these can be the key to helping your children develop their full potential” is at the heart of the Montessori philosophy. This resonates so well with the Positive Discipline approach.

The purpose of Teaching Children What To Do, is to create, what Dr. Nelsen calls a “healthy sense of initiative”. This sense of initiative is based on the work of Erik Erikson who was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on psychosocial development of human beings.

A healthy sense of initiative, Dr. Nelsen explains that:

“a child needs secure boundaries and limits within which she can explore, experiment, and learn to develop her belief in her own competence and capability. It is important to create a balance between safety, creativity and courage.”


Another person whose work I truly admire is Magda Gerber. The reason I am mentioning her, just like Montessori, is that she was an early childhood educator and she developed a very useful list of ten principles based on her approach called : Educaring. I’d like to share with you the 8th principle, which is a big part of her approach and relevant to this Positive Discipline tool:

“8th Principle. Let children solve their own problems.

  • Children learn best by doing.

  • The goal is to encourage the children to be independent, self-confident, inquisitive learners.

  • When children are learning a new skill, teachers will set up the situation to aid successes. For example, when learning to put on his/her own shirt, a teacher might lay shirt flat on a surface and verbally direct child to grab shirt from bottom and pull over his/her head.

  • When children encounter a problem, teachers will first ask open-ended questions to help the children solve their own problem rather than solving it for  them. Likewise, when children want to gain more information about something, teachers will ask open-ended questions to facilitate independent thoughts before offering information.”


It is important to, in order for your child to develop life skills, to be patient, to observe what they do, redirect if their safety is at risk, in other words, to facilitate chances for them to develop self-motivation. It is so important that your trust your child, the more your child practices a new skill the more capable she will feel.

One of the keys to nurture this tool “Teaching Children What To Do” is another tool called Encouragement. NVC offers us a vast vocabulary to enrich the lives of our children.

When their needs are met these are the feelings that you can share together:

Happy, cheerful, joyful, overjoyed, blissful, pleased, appreciative, thankful, grateful, thoughtful, proud, glad, delighted, overwhelmed, comfortable, quiet, calm, secure, contented, relaxed, peaceful, confident, interested, curious, intrigued, hopeful, optimistic, enthusiastic, excited, inspired, sensitive, friendly, touched, trusting, warm, loving.

These are words that will stay with your child all her life. She will link actions to these words and they can have such a powerful positive effect on them when they are facing the downs of life. Try your best to nurture positive language in your family and in your classroom. Providing a healthy environment is all we need to raise capable people who will contribute in our society.

To encourage means to teach self-reliance in children. This is an important life skill to cultivate in children. Dr. Nelsen says:

“Praise is not encouraging because it teaches children to become “approval junkies.” They learn to depend on others to evaluate their worth. Encouragement leads to self-reflection and self-evaluation.”


Alfie Kohn, who I mentioned on episode 4, states that praise can lead children to be dependent on external decisions and evaluations instead of cultivating intrinsic motivation and rely on their own evaluations and opinions; praising takes pleasure away from the child, putting the adult in a position to command how that child should feel.

It can be tricky for some adults to change the habit of praising. Dr. Carol Dweck, developmental and social psychologist, author of Mindset, has been researching about “the effects of “process praise,” which means praising effort or strategy opposed to “person praise” which labels people. The idea is that reinforcing effort contributes to children’s beliefs that they can get better at things if they try, the vaunted “growth mindset.” But praising traits feeds the belief that talent is fixed, which makes kids less willing to take on new challenges that might expose them as less naturally able.”

What I like about Dweck’s proposal is that it gives a chance to adults to shift praise in a constructive way. This can lead to the path to using encouraging statements in the future. So if you find it difficult to make that shift, try to remember to praise the effort and not the person.

Dr. Nelsen says:

“Encouragement is helping your children develop courage—courage to grow and develop into the people they want to be—to feel capable, to be resilient, to enjoy life, to be happy, contributing members of society, and, as Dreikurs said, “To have the courage to be imperfect;” to feel free to make mistakes and to learn from them.”

Positive Discipline tools such as Family Meetings,  Curiosity Questions, Showing Faith in children, Spending Special Time are designed to be encouraging to children.

“The successful use of encouragement requires adult attitudes of respect, interest in the child’s point of view, and a desire to provide opportunities for children to develop life skills that will lead to self-confident independence from the negative opinions of others.”






Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg.

Positive Discipline by Dr. Jane Nelsen

The Discovery of the Child and The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori.