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Between Parent and Child: An All-Time Parenting Best-Seller

The launch of new thinking about praise and criticism.

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In 1961 when psychologist Haim Ginott published his parenting guide called Between Parent and Child, the surprisingly entertaining book and its delightfully funny author set a record for longest running #1 on the Best Seller Lists.  Ginott’s frequent appearances on TV talk shows, where he kept viewers in peals of laughter at the stories he would tell of classic parenting do’s and don’ts, accounted for much of the book’s popularity.  In addition though, the wisdom Ginott preached has stood the test of time.

Dr. Ginott himself aimed to do for parenting what a medical doctor named Semelweis earlier had done for women in childbirth.  Dr. Semelweis discovered that doctors themselves were passing childbirth fever from birthing mom to birthing mom by examining them without washing their hands between patients.  Dr. Ginott similarly discovered a small intervention with enormous impact.  He explained to parents that they must stop using negative labels like “lazy” or “stupid” to characterize their children in order to prevent conveying negative self-images from parents to children. 

Ginott’s discovery about criticizing and praising children

Dr. Ginott warned parents to be far more careful about what they say to children about themselves.  Tell a child that he is an idiot and he will believe it.  Tell him he is the best artist in the world and you are setting him up for disappointment.  But tell him you appreciate how hard he is trying to learn to do his math homework, and tell him that you very much like the picture he just drew, and you will have a child who is most likely to grow up feeling positive about himself. 

The following quotes from Between Parent and Child are from the book’s second chapter, Ginott’s most famous, entitiled New Ways of Praise and Criticism.

“Most people believe that praise builds up a child’s confidence and makes him feel secure.  In actuality, praise may result in tension and misbehavior.  Why?  Many children have, from time to time, destructive wishes about members of their family.  When parents tell a child, “You are such a good boy,” he may not be able to accept it because his own picture of himself is quite different.  In his own eyes, he cannot be “good” when only recently he wished that his mother had a zipper on her mouth … In fact, the more he is praised, the more he misbehaves in order to show his “true self.”  Parents frequently report that just after praising a child for good deportment, he starts to act wild, as thought o disprove their compliment.  …”

Desirable and Undesirable praise

“…The single most important rule is that praise deal only with the child’s efforts and accomplishments, not with his character and personality.

…The following example illustrates desirable praise: Jim, age eight, did a good job cleaning up the yard.  He raked the leaves, removed the garbage, and rearranged the tools.  Mother was impressed and expressed her appreciation of his efforts and achievements:

Mother: The  yard was so dirty.  I didn’t believe it could be cleaned up in one day.

Jim: I did it!

It was full of leaves and garbage.

Jim: I cleaned it all up. 

Mother: The yard is so clean now, it is a pleasure to look at it.

Jim: It’s nice.

Mother Thank you , son.

Jim (with a mile-wide smile): You are welcome. “ (pp.39-40).

Ginott went on to write:

"The following words of praise addressed to the child’s personality would have been unhelpful:

“You are such a wonderful child.”

“You are truly mother’s little helper.”

“What would mother do without you?”

While Ginott gets major credit for contemporary kindly parenting methods ...

Ginott was a pioneer in realizing that the difference between helpful and problematic observations to kids about themselves lies in praising specific efforts and actions rather than in giving overly-general labels.  

Yet while this gospel according to Ginott clearly has merit, I myself retain a tad of skepticism.  I believe that children sometimes are influenced in a positive way by enthusiastic parental over-statements and generalities.  For this I cite my own mother.  When as a young child I would manipulate my younger sister and brother into doing what I wanted them to do, my mother consistently would say, “Susan, you’re such a good psychologist!” My mother was always right when she told me to wear a raincoat to school because it was going to rain, so I believed my mother.  Lo and behold, here I am today, writing this post from the desk of psychologist Dr. Susan Heitler. 

At the same time, Ginott was totally clear that zero negative character labels were ever appropriate.  Zero. Negative character labels are punitive and abusive, not educational.  They only harm the child, and invite further negative behavior that conforms with the negative labels with which the parent has been berating him.   Tell him he is despicable and he will become despicable.  Tell her she is selfish and thoughtless and she will become selfish and thoughtless.

There's a message here that applies as well beyond the parenting realm.  Harsh negative labels toward oneself are seldom if ever helpful, nor toward any loved ones.  People make mistakes.   Mistakes are for learning.   Mistakes do not merit harsh, judgmental, "You're not OK!," critical name-calling. Abusive criticism of this type makes for less learning and only enhances distress.  Criticize the behavior (it was mistaken, misinformed, ineffective, unrealistic, dangerous, etc), not the person.

More gems from Between Parent and Child

This warning is relevant to grandparents as well as to parents:

"When we spend a few moments or a few hours with one of our children, let us be with him fully.  For that period, let the boy feel that he is our only son and let the girl feel that she is our only daughter.  When we are out with one child, let us not be preoccupied with the others; let us not talk about them or buy them presents.  For the moment to be memorable, our attention must be undivided." 

On discipline in past times and in the methods Dr. Ginott advocated:

"There is a vast difference between the old and the new approach to discipline.  In disciplining a child, parents used to stop undesirable acts, but ignored the urges that brought about the acts......  the modern approach helps the child both with his feelings and conduct.  The parents ask the child...to speak out about what he feels, but limit and direct undesirable acts.  The limits are set in a manner that preserves the self-respect of the parent as well as of the child. The limits are neither arbitrary nor capricious, but educational and character-building." 

Parents are not for kicking.

"A child should never be allowed to hit his parents.  Such physical attacks are harmful for both child and parent...."  

Ginott recommended that parents give instructions to children via short oft-repeatable mantras.  To stop the kicking Ginott recommended:

"No hitting...If you are angry, tell it to me in words.....Parents are not for kicking."

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Clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD, specializes in teaching couples the skills for marriage success via therapy, her book and workbook called Power of Two, and her online program called PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.

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Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.

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