Simple Ways to Improve Your Praise

As human beings, we are often predisposed to pay increased attention when situations are not unfolding as we had hoped, rather than noticing when they are. Within the parenting space, this frequently translates into acknowledging and addressing children’s negative behaviors rather than offering feedback and praise when children are making positive choices. Unfortunately, when parents focus exclusively on addressing negative behaviors, this pattern can undermine the quality of the parent-child relationship while communicating to children that it is their missteps, rather than their successes, that warrant the attention of people in their lives.

There are certainly times within every family when negative behaviors need to be directly addressed; however, it is critical for parents to be mindful that positive reinforcement can be a highly effective approach to generating behavioral change, as well as a valuable opportunity to strengthen the parent-child bond.

Why praise?

When used correctly, praise is an exceptionally valuable tool for positive parenting. Focusing on mastering the use of praise and positive feedback is time well spent, as it enables parents not only to improve the quality of parent-child interactions, but also to encourage increased self-awareness and self-esteem for their children.

Here are some tips to consider for parents seeking to make the most of the praise they offer their children:

Moving from global to specific praise

Very often, children are offered global praise. Global praise offers vague reinforcement of a child’s work product or natural ability.

Examples include:

“Good job!”

“You did great!”

“You’re so smart and talented.”

Although global praise is frequently offered with good intentions and can initially be appealing to a child, it can also produce the following undesirable effects:

1. Praise burnout. If offered enough times, excessive global praise can lose meaning to the child and also to the parent. Burnout occurs when vague praise has been offered so frequently that it is perceived as disingenuous and carries little value to the child receiving it.

2. Elevated anxiety. Praising a child’s natural abilities offers little insight into how to replicate and expand upon desired behaviors. In fact, by very frequently praising a child for being “smart and talented,” the child may experience elevated anxiety around performance and the possibility that their natural talents may disappear or prove insufficient for sustained success.

3. Reliance on external validation. Often, parents will respond to the majority of their children’s positive efforts with a brief comment such as: “Nice job!” Children may come to view this type of commentary as the norm and begin to rely on some type of external validation in order to feel successful on a given task.

Contrary to global praise, specific praise carries greater meaning and value to a child, and will result in positive long-term effects. Rather than ambiguously praising a child’s natural abilities or work product, specific praise provides extremely detailed acknowledgement of a child’s effort and work process.

For example, the following statement includes highly specific commentary and positive acknowledgement:

“I can tell that you put an impressive amount of effort and persistence into that assignment. It looks to me like you spent time planning your ideas and double-checking your punctuation. You must be really proud of yourself for your hard work.”

Specific praise offers the following advantages:

1. Insight into improvement pathways. By providing a child with specific feedback about the ways in which a particular behavior was desirable, children have a clear understanding of how they can work to build upon those characteristics. It serves as a verbal roadmap that a child can use to experience greater success.

2. Enhanced self-esteem. Specific praise acknowledges a child’s process and effort rather than natural ability and the end product. Because process and effort are within a child’s control more so than any innate talents, specific praise reinforces to children that they hold the reins to their own success. Further, neutral openers (“I noticed that…”; “I can see that…”) and language such as, “You must be proud of yourself,” shifts the focus from the parent’s validation to the child’s acknowledgement of their own effort.

Redefining success

When trying to discover opportunities for positive reinforcement, remember that the absence of a negative can be viewed as a positive. For example, imagine that a child frequently becomes frustrated and storms away when working on reading. A reading session during which they become frustrated but remains seated can nonetheless be understood as a moment worthy of specific praise (e.g. “I noticed that, even though there were some frustrating moments during that reading practice, you kept on trying. I think that kind of effort takes a lot of patience and courage.”).

Particularly when beginning the process of using praise to shift behaviors, it may be necessary to broaden the scope of what a positive behavior looks like. By offering specific praise to non-negative behaviors, children will be given a verbal roadmap and an increased sense of confidence in their ability to generate success within their own lives. Over time, these variables will shift non-negative behaviors into bona fide positive ones.

Soraya Lakhani, M.Ed., R. Psych., is the Clinical Director of Yellow Kite Child Psychology (yellowkite.ca), in Calgary. Soraya is a thought leader on parenting and child psychology, and her work has frequently appeared on CBC, Global and other major media outlets. 

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