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Of Rewards and External Validation

Recently, NYTimes published an essay written by Eileen Gu, one of the Winter Olympic gold medalists, about her relationship with pressure and stress. (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/sports/olympics/eileen-gu-skiing-fear.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur ). It was interesting to read about what goes on in the mind of an Olympian. What struck me were her words on “bolstering her self-esteem” and “minimizing her need for external validation”. This was something that I have been mulling over for a while.


We often use positive reinforcement with children on a daily basis. It is vital that in the midst of encouraging children to persevere in tasks and their learning, we do not create a situation where they become reliant on external validation or gratification.





Ultimately, we want to enable a child to be confident in his/her own ability and be independent learners and doers.

According appropriate positive reinforcement at the right time and space is vital in the process.


Here are 3 personal guidelines that I have learned over the years on positive reinforcement:


1. Try not to make a “physical reward”(such as sweets, toys, playtime) a norm or habit: I learned this the really hard way in my early days in my career when a few children had major meltdowns after not getting his “reward” for the week. While it works for a while, let’s be mindful not to make this the end goal for each task that the child is supposed to do.


2. Give authentic and specific feedback: Verbal encouragement is something that we use often. Being specific instead of just summarizing everything in 2 words such as “good girl” or "good job”, goes a very long way in encouraging a child in anything that he/she does. Pointing out areas well done, and then supporting areas of improvement helps build confidence in the child.


3. Avoid “emotional blackmail” for the lack of a better word: It is very easy to fall into a “Don’t make the me sad” or “when you do this, I will be happy” mode with children. I often hear this from caregivers with the intention of building empathy. Being authentic with children about how we feel is needful, but it shouldn’t be used as a threat or a goal for them to work towards to.


Again, I am not saying not to use physical rewards or verbal encouragement altogether. Rather, be mindful of how we use them to help children be confident individuals. If we notice that the child is beginning to show signs that he “needs” the reward or the validation in order to function, it is time wean him/her of it.


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