"Encourage" means "infuse with courage". And most parents are all in favor of having their children be courageous—knowing their own minds, trying and excelling at new things, standing up for what’s right—until we realize they may also use that courage to disagree with us, or to choose a path that entails real danger. (Some parents get as terrified about seeing children endanger their chances of economic success, as their physical safety.) If you really want to encourage your children—encourage them to be emotionally healthy, confident people all their lives—you’ll need a little courage of your own. And a little humility to remember this is not simply your child, but an independent and individual human being.
So, if you still choose to accept the mission of encouraging your child, here are three points to remember:
Let Them Decide When They’re Ready to Try Things
Many parents would have fewer problems getting elementary-school children to help with chores if they had said "yes" years earlier when the kids first asked. So what if a toddler is slower and messier at first? Just keep breakable and heavy stuff away, then step in only if there’s real danger—not because you’re getting impatient or there are wrinkles left in the bedspread.
Don’t Be a Perfectionist
This follows on the heels of "don’t jump in and take over". It’s no better to let the child finish the job without comment, only to then point out in detail every tiny imperfection or, worse, make him do it over until he "gets it right". (Chances are all he’ll get is frustrated to the point of doing a truly terrible job.)
Mothers seem especially prone to dwelling on imperfections. Many children and even husbands complain that the lady of the house "says I never do anything to help with the chores, but whenever I try, she hovers over me ‘correcting’ every move I make". Really, what’s the worst thing that could happen if a child puts a spoon in the dishwasher’s knife rack—or scores 98 instead of 100 on a final exam? Allow for learning by doing.
Don’t Be Overly Effusive
Strange to say, unqualified praise—the opposite of nit-picking criticism—can be equally detrimental. Children are as aware as anyone of not being everything they want to be, and the child who constantly hears "You did such a good job" may start thinking "Oh, they always say that" and herself develop the habit of pointing out endless imperfections in her work. Or, she may start thinking any effort is good enough and be devastated when she meets other authority figures with stricter standards.
Better: praise some specific aspect of what’s been done—this plants the thought, "My best is always good enough, yet further improvement is always possible". Be honest, but always focus on the positive.
A child who feels appreciated at all times—without feeling entitled to special indulgences—is a courageous child who feels free to try things he may not get right the first time, because he knows he doesn’t have to be perfect to be loved. That’s a goal every parent should have for family life.