Are kids praised too much these days, or not enough? Some parents believe in the “more is better” approach and dish out a “Good job!” for most everything, while others say, “Why should I give my kids praise and recognition for things they SHOULD be doing anyway?” Here’s the truth: like most things, the key to using praise effectively is finding the right balance between these two extremes.
One of the key rules of changing your child’s behavior: Don’t reinforce the behavior you want to change. This is one of the main reasons why we recommend walking away from your child when he or she tries to pull you into an argument; namely, so you are not giving attention to (and therefore reinforcing) the power struggle between you and your child. The other part of that equation is paying attention to the replacement behavior you want to see. Praise can be an effective way of showing your child that you are paying attention.
Here are the top three things to keep in mind to use praise successfully:
Be specific. In order to use praise effectively, it’s important that you’re specific about the behavior that you are praising. Many parents believe that saying, “Good job!” is good enough. Here’s the thing: the more specific you can be, the more kids feel like they are being noticed — and the more likely they are to “listen louder” as James Lehman says. Try using praise that includes the words “see,” “notice,” or “hear” — words that have a powerful effect with kids. So instead of saying “Good job!” to your child, you might say something like, “I noticed that you unloaded the dishwasher without being asked, and I want you to know that I appreciate that.”
Praise the action rather than character traits. Focus on the behavior that your child is showing, rather than on his or her personality traits. Ongoing research done by Carol Dweck shows that praising a child’s effort leads to more success, while praising a child’s character can have the opposite effect. One study in particular looked at fifth-graders working on a puzzle. After it was completed, some students were told, “You must be really smart at this” while others were told, “You must have worked really hard on this.” In subsequent puzzles, the children who were told they were smart were more likely to give up or do worse on more challenging puzzles, while the children who were praised for their efforts were more likely to do well. So instead of saying, “You’re so good at math,” try “I saw how determined you were to figure out that problem on your worksheet; you really stuck with it and it paid off when you took the test.”
Everything does not deserve a reward. Lest some of you think that I am proposing that every child should get a trophy for breathing, I will emphasize that it is helpful to focus on and give praise for things that are developmentally appropriate for your child. While you might say, “You did so well zipping your jacket by yourself, buddy!” to your 5 year old, this would not be appropriate praise for most 15 year olds. Kids gain self-worth by accomplishing tasks that are worthy and challenging for them, not by hearing a constant stream of encouragement.
It’s normal to want your children to feel good about themselves and to achieve success in their lives. As James Lehman reminds us, “You can’t feel your way to better behavior, but you can behave your way to better feelings.” Through effective use of praise, you can assist your child in achieving both better behavior, and feelings of achievement.