Seven Tips for using Praise Positively
We all like praise.
When someone tells me, “That was a great blog”, it makes me happy. It motivates me. It increases my confidence, boosts my self-esteem, and leads me to write again next month. The negative comment, “Your blog sucks” is devastating.
So, praise is good and, as good parents, we use it all the time to encourage our children.
A key to a child’s interaction with a parent is that he/she learns from every interchange and develops social skills which are fundamental for later life. The use of praise is an important piece of the puzzle, but if we do it the wrong way, we reduce its effectiveness, and it can even be detrimental.
Here are some ideas:
1. Don’t praise too often – Some parents lavish praise every day. When the little girl gets home from daycare, they say to her, “You had a great day. Congratulations. You were the best in the class, again. You’re so smart.” They think this is useful but overpraising will suffer from the “the boy who cried wolf” syndrome. The boy who called out the wolf threat too often was ignored and later, even ridiculed. Doing it daily will become regarded as normal and your little girl will expect it every day. It will not offer her encouragement and she might start believing you are insincere. Not good, and if you happen not to praise her one day, your child may well be unnecessarily upset by this change in behavior. So, use praise sparingly.
2. Don’t praise trivial achievements – “You just had another day at preschool. Congratulations. Let’s celebrate.” Your every interaction with your child results in the child learning something. With praise, they are learning what you regard as important. From the dialog above, they learn that just attending is important, probably not what you intended. So, don’t laud trivial achievements as you lose the opportunity to help them determine what is important and what is not, and your child may even think you are being insincere.
3. Praise how they achieved what they have, not the outcome. Don’t say “That is a great painting” but say “You have really used your colors well.” Reinforcement of self-esteem and confidence comes from mastering the “how” rather than the achievement itself. Children may display specific abilities but to achieve growth it is more important for them to master the processes and methods to get there. Being a natural artist and being praised as such, doesn’t help them develop their painting skills. Addressing the processes also opens the door to encourage the child when they have not achieved the outcome which they would like.
4. Praise with questions – A key aspect of teaching is to ask questions. The child has to think through what you are asking them and then respond. They learn more that way. This also adds to the interaction and allows you to work with the child to improve, while not challenging her abilities. Consider, a question like “how did you decide which colors to use?”. Praise of the process is implied but the child is pushed to think about it.
5. Be specific in your praise. “Good job” is an easy one but is similar to saying “I love you”. It is general and all encompassing. It will make the child feel good but will not have the positive effects of improving her. Saying “your painting is really good” is okay but too general. What does the child do with this comment other than feel good? Much better to use specific praise, “I like that way you have painted the mermaid in the middle of the picture. Did you consider having her off to one side?” Also, by using this approach, you can temper the negatives – if the painting is, frankly, not very good, praising specific parts of the artwork is useful, honest, and motivating. Stress the specific process, not the overall achievement. If there is a constructive element you feel needs to be mentioned, ensure you lead off with a positive. Make a deposit in the emotional bank account before taking a withdrawal.
6. Avoid comparative praise – Don’t say, “your painting is the best in the class” unless you want to introduce a competitive message in your parenting, which I do not recommend. Think about the term average. It’s a great shorthand way of capturing data and expressing insight in just one number - “On average, Americans earned $45,000 in 2021.” Intrinsic to the average, however, is that, by definition, half the population earned less. Half are “below average”. In your child’s class, half the students are, by definition, below average,” so be careful how you hand out comparative praise.
7. Don’t praise in a manipulative manner. “Your painting is terrific, and I expect you to do the next one even better.” This is detrimental. The child will remember the veiled threat in having to do even better next time, rather than being motivated by the interchange. If you want her to improve, try a different approach, “Hey, how would you be able to do even better next time? More vibrant colors?”
Bottom line: Don’t just wing it with praise. Think through a strategy for adding this to your other child development skills and set up an approach that works for you and your family.
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