Father using descriptive praiseA UCLA survey from a few years ago reported that the average one year old child hears the word ‘No’ more than 400 times a day.

As parents we worry about giving our children too much praise, and making them big-headed, but if praise is given in the right way we won’t spoil our children. What is important is that we notice and comment when our children are being good, and rather than saying ‘good girl’ or ‘well done’ we describe the behaviour. Such as; ‘I really like the way you are playing quietly while I’m cooking the tea – that is very helpful’. Notice the label ‘helpful’ at the end of the comment. When we want to encourage values such as being thoughtful, confident, honest, independent, gentle, etc., it is a good idea to point them out each time we notice small things that they do that show this quality. We encourage behaviour by paying attention to it.

It is also important not to save praise for perfect behaviour, or for being really good. Children will be much more motivated when they know how to get our positive attention, and lots of small comments throughout the day will help them know exactly what they are doing that we like. It is good to comment every time we see good or even acceptable behaviour, efforts to try to do something or small improvements. ‘last night it was two minutes before you called for Mummy, tonight you managed to last five minutes –that showed good self-control’ If our children are not fighting –we should notice it! We can tell them how nice it is to see them sitting side by side and not hurting each other. Once or twice this may backfire, but eventually they will start to learn that they get positive attention if they are not fighting. Consistently noticing is the key

If we are able to link some of this good behaviour to treats and rewards, our children will feel even more motivated to keep up the good work. And if we have a treat planned we could say ‘You tried so hard with you reading this morning, I’m going to take you to the park this afternoon’.

When we are praising a child the impact is increased if we show how pleased we are with smiles, eye contact, hugs, pats on the back and enthusiasm. It is best if praise is immediate. Praising in front of other people makes children feel proud, and if we consistently express our belief in our children they will start to believe it too! Giving positive attention may feel awkward at first, but when you think about it, isn’t it sad that we feel more comfortable criticising our children than encouraging them in their efforts? If our child rejects our praise we need to make even more effort–it may be that they are so used to hearing criticisms they cling to their negative self-image.

Children who have difficult temperaments also need even more praise than easy-going children. They hear so many negatives throughout the day that parents have to be even more vigilant in pointing out the good or just OK behaviour. Constantly looking for little things to praise will reduce the demotivating effects of the negative comments that their behaviour often attracts. It can be hard for a child has a hyperactive or impulsive personality to ever feel good at anything!

Children also pick up behaviour that we model. So it is good if they hear us saying positive things about ourselves. It may feel awkward at first, but ‘I did a good job cooking this evening, I really enjoyed that’ or ‘I managed to mend my puncture –I’m quite good at that’ are good messages for our children to hear. They have the added benefit of helping us feel more positive about our skills. Let’s face it we don’t often hear the words: ‘You are a really good parent’ do we? Some partners make a point of telling each other at least one thing that they did well that day before they go to bed, just as a feel-good habit. Everyone likes to feel appreciated.

As parents giving positive attention and descriptive praise can be difficult, but the effects on our children of decreasing misbehaviour and improving self-image and motivation are really worth the effort. Consistently remembering to describe what our children are doing that we like can have a dramatic effect on their behaviour.

I’d love to know how you get on with your children, please pop a note in the box below and keep me posted on how this works out for you