Praise in Parenting
As humans, it is natural that we give more attention to things that appear to be wrong or improper in our environment. It is how we keep ourselves alert and prepared for situations where something may go awry. The same is true in parenting parents. We may find that we often are telling children to stop engaging in certain behaviors, improve upon their current work, or alter their responses. However, as parents, it is extremely important that we also attend to our children’s positive behaviors as well. Of course, if a child is doing something that is inappropriate or dangerous, it is a parent’s job to correct them and take steps to minimize this in the future. However, we should actually be spending even more time commending children on the things they are doing right or well than areas we want them to change.
Praise is extremely important aspect of parenting. It is a common concern that children who are praised “too much” end up being spoiled or poorly behaved. However, research has shown the exact opposite is true. If a child is consistently punished or scolded for “bad behavior”, they may learn that this behavior is wrong, but they are not given practice in the behavior that would be expected or appreciated. If they are praised and commended on their proper behavior, they are more likely to continue to engage in these positive activities. If they are engaging in these positive activities, they are not engaging the corresponding negative behaviors.
The first step is to effectively praising your child is to select a behavior that you as a parent would like to see more often. One way to select these behaviors is to think of the behaviors that you would like to see less often, and choose the competing behavior. For example, if your child frequently grabs toys from his brother, praise him for playing nicely with him whenever this occurs. If your child often leaves messes around the house, praise her any time that she puts something away.
Once you have chosen a behavior to praise, your job is to keep an eye out for it occurring. Whenever it is seen, praise your child very enthusiastically. It should be obvious in your facial expressions, words, and gestures how pleased you are that they have done the desired behavior. Praise should occur immediately following the action in order to ensure that the child links the two. Also, tell the child specifically what behavior you are praising. For example, “Great job! You shared that toy with your brother!” or “Very good, you put the blocks back in the toy chest after playing with them!” Finally, add a non-verbal element to your praise. Pat your child on the head, squeeze their shoulder, or give them a quick hug.
At times, you may have selected a behavior, and then this behavior does not occur in order for your for you to offer your enthusiastic, specific praise. In this situation, break your initial chosen behavior into smaller steps. Is your child not sharing with his brother? Praise him for not taking a toy away from him. Is your child not cleaning up their blocks? Praise him for keeping the mess in a certain space. As this praise encourages them to engage in these smaller steps, they pave the way for the larger goal.
It may also seem that you will have to spend an inordinate amount of time praising children constantly if you choose to begin this process. However, research has shown that praise is a temporary program that results in ongoing behavior change. It is not necessary to continue to praise indefinitely once the child has developed sufficient practice in the positive behavior. Also, it if important to remember that just as all children are unique, the amount of praise they require to effectively change their behavior will be different as well. While some children may quickly respond to basic praise, others may take additional time and larger quantities of praise.
There are certain types of praise that are generally less effective and even damaging. One type is vacuous praise, or offering praise to your child regardless of their behaviors. Another is praise that is aimed at the child and not at their specific action, such as saying “you are such as good boy” instead of “it is so helpful when you carry in the groceries with me.” Behavior-based affection is also dangerous and can severely effect a child’s security in their relationship with parents, such as telling them “I love you for doing that.” Similarly, a parent’s praise should not be self-focused, such as “you make mom and dad so happy when…”. This makes behavior less likely to generalize to settings where the parent is not present. Finally, ending praising with cutting comments about the child’s typical behaviors, such as “why cant you always be like that?” is dangerous. This devalues the child and the efforts he is making to improve.
Finally, praise is far more enjoyable for parents to deliver than punishment. When your child feels happy and appreciated, you are more likely to feel good about yourself and your parenting skills as well!