The key to praising your child effectively
It seems like such a simple thing – easy to do and a lovely way of connecting with your child.
But have you ever thought about the purpose of praise? And what effect your style of praise might be having on your child?
The definition of praise is: “the expression of warm approval or admiration”. And this is how most people use praise – as a way of expressing their approval of someone else.
But when we think about this for our children, what does this actually mean?
Parents often tell me that they want their children to grow up to be confident in their own abilities, to be able to think for themselves and to have a positive self-image.
What this tells me is that, for most parents, the way their children evaluate themselves is incredibly important.
And it is.
But, more often than not, the way we praise our children emphasises our evaluation of them:
“What a beautiful drawing! Well done!”
“You’re so good at reading. Clever boy!”
“Oh, you’ve tidied your room all by yourself. You are such a good girl!”
As well intentioned as these forms of praise might be, what they don’t have is the space for true self-evaluation. And in fact, what they do have is the potential for inviting some unexpected responses or thoughts:
“Does she really like my drawing? I don’t think it’s that good.”
“This book is easy, that’s why I can read it.”
“She doesn’t know I just stuffed everything under my bed.”
So, although the “Well done!” and “Good girl!” type of praise can bring about good feelings, it can also make children have doubts (I don’t believe she likes my picture); it can cause them to focus on their weaknesses (I’m not that good at reading); or it can lead to denial (I’m not good because I didn’t tidy up properly).
Now you might be reading this and thinking: “But my child loves it when I praise him, even when I do it like this.”
And I don’t doubt that they do.
The question is whether that warm feeling, that boost that they get from hearing you say “Well done!” is more than just temporary – and there is evidence to say that it isn’t.
The trick here, as it is in everything to do with this mindful parenting approach, is to have the long game in mind. To remember your end goals:
You want your child to be confident in their own abilities.
You want your child to be able to think for themselves.
You want your child to have a positive self-image.
These goals are lifelong - and they won’t be achieved solely by your evaluations of your child’s performance.
So, if that’s the case, how do you move away from you doing the evaluating and towards getting your child to evaluate themselves?
Instead of evaluating, describe what you see or feel.
In their book, “How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk”, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish note that helpful praise actually comes in two parts:
1. The adult describes with appreciation what they see or feel
2. The child, after hearing the description, is then able to praise himself
So, using this descriptive style of praise, the way you talk begins to look something like this:
Your praise: “Look at your picture – you’ve used so many different colours!”
Child thinks: “She likes it! I can draw good pictures.”
Your praise: “You remembered the words you’ve read before and you used your sounds to try reading the words you didn’t know.”
Child thinks: “I’m getting better at reading. I might try a harder book next time.”
Your praise: “I can see that you’ve folded all your clothes and put your books neatly back in your bookcase.”
Child thinks: “I can do a good job of tidying when I try to.”
This way of praising isn’t easy, and it’s definitely harder than just throwing out a quick one word “wonderful!” or “fantastic!”
It does take effort, but we know that anything worth achieving doesn’t come easily.
And if you truly value the qualities you want to see in your child, it’s got to be worth the effort it takes to achieve them.
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