Praise is the key to getting what you want

14th May 2004 at 01:00
I am convinced that all children are psychopaths to some degree. I am not talking about any kind of mental illness but about children's inbred indifference to anything other than the constant pursuit of fulfilment of their own needs, regardless of the feelings of anyone else in their lives.

Who can resist babies' little pug noses and cherub cheeks? Adults are genetically compelled to find babies endearing and to provide food and comfort at their beck and call.

Toddlers find it hard to tell the difference between what they need and what they want. Basically, they want everything their own way. A range of strategies comes into play as we become inured to the appeal of their cute features, but pursuit of their own ends continues to be based on the guilty tug on our hearts.

If tears fail, then there is a tactical shift to another "anything for a quiet life" approach to adult manipulation. This can take the form of pleading, nagging, sulking, demanding and tantrums. The most adept can employ such behaviours on a rota basis and all of them in quick succession.

In nursery classes we see examples of how youngsters are able to present an image of themselves which fits with adults' expectations but which does not match the reality of the situation.

Take, for example, the boy clinging to his mother's leg and sobbing:

"Mummy, don't leave me." It is very hard for a mother to prise little fingers off herself and determinedly leave for work without feeling a degree of guilt for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, her child's tears dry within seconds and he has a whale of a time with his pals, oblivious to his mother's distress.

This scene will be played out daily for as long as it suits the boy and the mother will continue to be frazzled by it, regardless of reassurances from nursery staff.

Primary 1 is often a rite of passage for children and parents in terms of the shift in the power base in a child's world. Past patterns of manipulation followed by capitulation are quickly challenged by the introduction of the requirements of the primary curriculum and a full day in school with one teacher who is focused on learning outcomes.

The best teacher I have had the privilege to watch was a P1 teacher. Marion would never utter a reprimand if she could turn it around and make it praise for the misbehaver. Instead of saying "Don't lie on the floor, Jimmy, when I'm trying to teach the group how to make sets of three", she would say slowly, giving Jimmy sufficient time to react, "I'm looking for someone who is sitting up and who is clever enough to do the next bit for me." And what do you know, Jimmy fitted the bill very nicely.

Not only was he no longer sprawled across the hoops, but he had been identified as a clever boy. No matter if he got it wrong, he had received a double dose of praise from an adult who was expert at letting children think they were getting their own way.

No refusal, no shouting, no blame, no failure.

It can be hard to sustain Marion's approach through primary and into secondary, when lips tend to curl at the merest hint of a reward system.

Parents can be reluctant to agree to a joint reward system, operated at school and at home, and I have known some who viewed it as blackmail. I don't care what it's called, it can work.

If P7 boys who are clearly heading off the rails can be turned around by having a one-to-one weekly informal chat with the headteacher, receiving a Headteacher's Award sticker and seeing a positive comment in their books, followed by receipt of some kind of reward at home, then I'm signed up for it. I have lost count of the number of street-wise boys who asked for their reward to be quality time on their own with a parent, at no financial expense.

Praise replaces blame, reward replaces punishment and no one pays. What better way to fulfil everyone's needs?

Joan Fenton is headteacher of Dyce Primary in AberdeenIf you have any comments, e-mail

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