We live in a competitive world. Over the years, somehow we have come to place more emphasis on power, prestige, and status and have overlooked the tough journey of achievement. Without our realization, this concept has been passed on to our children. We look for our kids to be the top of their class, the best athletes, or the most acclaimed musicians. When we do this, we send the message that outcome is more important than the effort it takes to get there. This is a recipe for disaster! We want our children to understand and appreciate all the energy, focus, discipline, and hard work it takes to achieve, but when we only reward the accomplishment, we miss the opportunity to teach our children this critical lesson.
Praising effort can be a powerful tool in shaping children’s behavior. Who doesn’t want to be acknowledged for their effort? Even adults look for acknowledgment from their bosses, spouses, and friends. Children are no different. They look to us as parents to acknowledge their attempts. There are a few key points in using praise as a method to increase positive behaviors and decrease negative ones.
Be genuine! Just as an adult can sense when another is being patronizing rather than authentic, children pick up when you are not genuine in your observations. Try to find something that your child does positively to comment on that truly pleases you. Your child will undoubtedly love this attention and continue seeking this praise by repeating this behavior.
Watch out for inadvertently reinforcing negative behaviors. Of course we want to teach our children right from wrong but be careful of constantly focusing on the negative actions. It’s so easy to say, “Don’t throw the toy,” or “Stop poking your sister.” Instead, try to focus on what your kid is doing right. Identify that moment that your child is behaving well. “I love how quietly you’re playing,” or “You and your sister are taking turns. That’s great!” No child is perfect, but I bet you can find something your child does right. Make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to let your child know this.
How do I praise my child when he constantly acts out? Sometimes you may want to comment not on an active behavior, but a passive one. For the child who has difficulty remaining still during tasks and is often hyperactive, you may want to praise the ability to sit still for even just a minute. Saying, “I love how you are sitting on the chair while we are eating dinner,” can have an impact on the child trying to continue sitting still. If this behavior is truly difficult for the child and he is not demonstrating the ability to sit for a minute, you may want to comment on his attempts. “I can see that you want to sit with us but it’s really hard to stop moving around.” This helps the child understand that you are recognizing his intentions and attempts and he will likely continue trying to control his impulsive behaviors.
Timing is everything! Remember to praise immediately with little children. As soon as you witness the positive behavior, recognize it verbally. This will help the child pair the behavior with the praise. As children grow, you can take longer to praise. For example, you can say to your teenager, “You already finished all of your homework for the night? That’s awesome! Don’t you love having the rest of the evening to relax?”
Be specific! It’s not enough to merely tell your child, “good job.” A child needs to understand what she did specifically that was considered a good job. For example, you may want to say something like, “Thank you for taking your shoes off when you walked into the house,” or, “I’m so proud of you for doing your science homework. I know how much you dislike science.” In this way, you are communicating what your child is doing specifically that deserves attention.
Let’s be realistic. Your child may not be the best, most amazing, ultimate, perfect being. Saying, “You’re the best piano player in the competition,” or, “You are the best soccer player on the field,” sends the message that you are only recognizing your child’s successes. There’s nothing wrong with praising your child for succeeding, just make sure you recognize how hard they worked to get there.
Using praise to compliment effort over outcome will help your child develop self-esteem, increase self-awareness of strengths, and shape positive behaviors. They will take this lesson with them throughout life and learn that their hard work is what is truly important- not just the accomplishment.