Using Narration and Language that Encourages Intrinsic Motivation and a Growth Mindset
"after seeing the impact distraction has on their ability to calm themselves independently, even only over a few hours or a day, I'm convinced it is better to take the hard yards up front and try and work through their emotions, as the twins will be much happier overall."
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(TG = Twin Girl, TB = Twin Boy)
Narration was probably the cornerstone that helped hold all of the practices we identified from RIE and Montessori together, and barring a couple of nuances below, was very simple to start doing. When doing something ourselves, or observing the twins, we would basically play back to them what was happening in real time for example “I’m just changing your nappy, first I'll take off your trousers…” or “you are playing with the ball, you are turning it over in in your hands, oh you dropped it!”. We would avoid doing this if they were intensely focussed on a task (you can imagine how annoying this would be if you were trying to concentrate!) but otherwise seemed to naturally moderate ourselves in terms of what and how much we narrated.
To others this might make you sound slightly obsessed and unhinged, but there were benefits!
Firstly it set us up nicely for many of the other practices we adopted from RIE and Montessori - to narrate, you have to be paying attention, it’s easier to have a two way (even if one sided!) conversation, ask for permission, offer options and by narrating you involve the children even when they are still too tiny to get involved physically. Also, when they are very small, during extended periods of solo parenting, it really helped with creating a sense of communication with them that made the experience feel less isolated.
Secondly, it helps with language development, as you are repeatedly associating words with activities and objects.
However, there were a couple of nuances, specifically around creating intrinsic motivation, a growth mindset and mastering emotions which took a bit of getting used to and to be honest, we still trip over from time to time.
1. Narration (i.e. talking the babies through anything you or they are doing) was easier than I thought, and once you got into the habit, other than sounding a bit loopy to others, became second nature.
2. Narration is a key cornerstone to many of the other practices we identified, as it increases your attention to what is going on, helps to identify options and reminded us to ask permission, etc. It also helps with language development as words are more easily associated with actions and context.
3. Instead of using "no" we used "I can't let you do that...because...". This reinforced that the boundary was being set by us, which created clarity and a feeling of security for the twins. Also by explaining why, we created a learning opportunity that helped the twins understand what exactly the issue was.
4. We limited praise to really exceptional achievements and to praising effort and behaviours. The aim was to increase the twins sense of "intrinsic" motivation and resilience.
5. With the usual setup being only one parent looking after the twins, we knew that we wouldn't be able to give them both all the attention they wanted. To help build resilience, we wouldn't distract the twins when they were upset, or minimise their emotions by telling them "it's ok".
6. We would talk them through the situation and how they were feeling so that they could (over time) get comfortable with their emotions and processing them themselves. This was, other than sleep deprivation, the hardest thing about parenting. Seeing your child upset is horrific and its impossible to not want to make it instantly better. That said, it was also one of the most obvious areas that worked, with the twins being noticeable happier and more content when this approach had been consistently applied.
Setting limits whilst avoiding “no”
We liked to think we were pretty laid back about most things, but where we did set limits, we wanted them to be clear as this should help the twins be less frustrated as they understood what the boundaries are. One of the little linguistic tricks suggested by RIE is to avoid the word “no” and replace it with “I can't let you do that…because…”. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the word “no”, overusing it does miss out on learning opportunities:
By making it clear “I can’t let you do that” we were providing clarity that this is a limit that we as the parent are setting. This is helpful as it creates an immediate link between the boundary and us, who (whether we felt like it or not!) were persons of authority for the twins, so they expected and wanted clear and consistent boundaries from us, making them feel safe, secure and less frustrated.
It’s wasn't massively informative to just say “no” in terms of helping the twins understand exactly what the "no" applies to, and importantly why something is undesirable. By adding the “because…”, we could also create a learning opportunity from the event that lets the twins know why we were setting a limit. So for example we might say “I can't let you hit, because hitting hurts”. This sets a clear limit around hitting, but also explains why that is (“because it hurts”) meaning that the child will learn over time that anything that “hurts” is undesirable. A simple “no” provides none of this context.
If no is used all the time, it can loose its impact, I have seen plenty of children that brush aside no casually and carry on. We use it quite rarely, so when we do use it, the twins tend to pause and stop (although still not 100% of the time!)
You may have heard the term “praise junky” before. It has become common in the last couple of generations for children to be praised almost constantly for pretty much anything, which can have some negative unintended consequences:
A lack of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation means that you do things because you want to and enjoy the process , not because you feel you need to to please others or for external reward (known as extrinsic motivation). Children are natural explorers, and are therefore more intrinsically motivated, if you leave them to explore, this remains the case. Excessive praise, especially of outcomes (i.e. wow, look at how high you stacked your blocks!) can not only interrupt the natural flow of play, but also conditions them to play for the praise not just for the satisfaction they get naturally from the activity. The impacts of this on later life can be severe, with adults who are overly extrinsically motivated often struggling to self motivate and/or chasing what they think others want whilst not feeling fulfilled and happy on their own terms.
We felt it was essential that we tried to create a “growth” mindset in the twins, where they believed that they could do anything that they put their mind to and had the resilience to persist when they hit setbacks. In a similar way to intrinsic motivation, if someone is used to constant praise for achievement, not effort, when they encounter something that puts them at risk of failure, they avoid trying to tackle it, because if they fail they wont be praised. This translates into a lack of risk taking and resilience in the face of challenge, which massively limits learning opportunities which come from pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone and failing. This in turn can contribute to a “fixed” mindset, where someone believes that their talents and what they are capable of are set in stone, and they cannot ever improve or grow (or they give up when they try, as of course no one is successful 100% of the time!). Today, given what information is available via the internet, and the ability to access knowledge, experts and education on pretty much anything, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The world of Social media magnifies the risks of being overly extrinsically motivated dramatically as you are constantly exposed to others thoughts, feelings and judgement. If you are extrinsically motivated, there is the risk you become totally reactive to others perceived judgement and lose your own sense of self-esteem. There is even research supporting this from Facebook itself! The internet and social media aren’t going away though (not forgetting there are plenty of positives), so we wanted to make sure the twins were as well equipped as possible to minimise the possible risks. Key here was once again helping them feel self assured, confident and intrinsically motivated so they felt as little pressure from external sources as possible
In order to avoid creating these issues with praise, there were once again a couple of small tweaks to be made:
We tried to praise achievements that were really exceptional, not everything! It’s hard when your heart explodes with love and joy when your child does pretty much anything, but we tried to remember it is much healthier for them if you limit praise. A handy rule of thumb I used to help define exceptional was if it is the first time they did something or had developed a different approach, especially where I had seen them gradually working up to mastering something, it was exceptional.
We avoided using comparison either to others, or by saying they are "the best", "the champion" etc. This creates an immediate "extrinsic" motivator in the comparison itself, rather than the child being happy just because they are pursuing their own agenda. This is especially important with twins, as it is so easy for them to fall into comparison with each other, and this can become toxic and create resentment between them as they compete...potentially for everything...and someone has to lose!
Rather than praising the outcome, or just offering praise constantly throughout (e.g. “good boy/girl”), we would praise of the effort. This creates a link between effort and reward, which when you think about it is basically what the practical application of resilience is! So, for example we might say “you are working so hard to crawl/move the furniture”, “you are concentrating so hard on that puzzle”. Similar to adding "because" in limit setting, being specific forced us to think through exactly what it is we were praising and wanted to reinforce.
When the twins were upset and crying, we of course wanted to tell them “it’s ok” and distract them with something that made them smile and laugh. The issue with this is that it prevents them from fully experiencing their emotions and learning how to process and master them on their own, which in the medium and long term actually leaves them happier, more secure and with much greater resilience (i.e. they get upset and cry less!). Distraction and minimisation (i.e. telling them they are ok when they are clearly not), especially if used as the go to method of dealing with things, can also teach children that it’s not ok to share their emotions (i.e. “I really feel upset, but daddy keeps telling me it’s ok, so I must be wrong or shouldn't share…”), which can cause some big issues over time, as they learn to bottle things up and then…explode!
Instead, we would comfort them (after a pause, often if given chance they would quickly resolve things for themselves and go back to laughing and playing!) and tell them repeatedly “we hear you, we love you” (so they feel listened and know they are loved), and ask if there is anything we can do to help, which occasionally would result in a point at what they wanted, an arm flap (water/milk!), or a belly rub (food!). We would try and name the emotion and narrate the situation, for example “you are feeling frustrated, it can be frustrating when someone asks you to do something and you don’t want to do it…”. This helps them understand how they are feeling and why, and over time helps them process these feelings and emotions independently. Practically, we knew that the children having their own resilience and ability to navigate their feelings was going to be super important, as again, with 2 babies at the same developmental stage, and usually only one adult being present, you just can't be physically available for them every time that they want you or are in distress.
What went well?
Narrating was actually pretty straight forward, it honestly gave us something to talk about when solo parenting especially in the first 3 months or so where conversations were pretty one way!
Similarly, all the language changes (e.g.. "I can't let you...") weren’t anywhere near as hard as I was expecting, although I suspect that it was a lot easier as we started with them from day one, as opposed to having to change existing habits.
In terms of what I observed of the twins relative to these changes, whilst of course I don’t have another baby handy that we treated differently, when the twins were put in environment where there was a lot of praise and emotional minimisation, there was an scarily immediate change in character to being much less comfortable with their emotions (more needy, frustrated, crying and tantrums). Once back in their usual environment, within a few days they would be back to their normal, largely relaxed, happy and contented selves. Of course, this might just be due to a change in environment, but as a regression it certainly aligns with the thinking behind the approach we were taking, and I hope is a good indicator that we are having the desired impact.
What was tough and what would we do differently?
It is impossible to totally eliminate “good boy/good girl/no”! These just seem to pop out, especially when you are tired, in a rush or surprised by what they do! I think this is fine, and I just focus on making sure they are used rarely, and much less than described above!
Probably the toughest thing (other than sleep depravation, probably of all) was working through crying and tantrums with the twins and not resorting to distraction. This is such an easy way to get them to calm and quiet in many instances, and as a parent it breaks your heart to see and hear them in distress. But, after seeing the impact distraction has on their ability to calm themselves independently, even only over a few hours or a day, I remain convinced it is better to take the hard yards up front and try and work through their emotions, as they will be much happier overall. This is super tough though, and requires a lot of resilience and patience as a parent, especially as they get older and have longer breakdowns. We would stick with them, keep telling them we loved them and being there to comfort them, whilst doing our best to narrate the situation and their feelings. As always though, the reward when we saw them get into a similar situation later and shrug it off independently and with no drama makes it totally worth it (and of course much less distressing everyone!).