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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

How to Use Praise

Parents often have similar goals for their children, including shaping their behaviors and developing positive self-esteem. Praise can actually be an important tool for influencing both of these areas, if the praise is delivered appropriately. Here are tips for what to do (and what not to do!) when praising:

1. Do be specific: One of the most popular phrases that is used when praising a child is a simple, “Great job!” While it is nice to recognize a job well done, this is a prime example of non-specific praise. When children hear this type of feedback, they have a more difficult time linking the specific behavior with the praise. Children get a much different message when they hear, “I like how you’re keeping your hands to yourself,” or, “Way to keep working even though it was hard!”

2. Don’t reward only results: Think about what you’d like your child to learn from your praise. It’s not important that a picture was colored within the lines; however, it is important that your child exerts effort. “Wow, I like how you’re really concentrating on your work,” puts a value on the work, while, “Your picture looks great!” focuses on the final product.

3. Do ask your child to self-appraise: Ultimately, most parents want their children to feel good about themselves and make their own judgments about their work. Before jumping to praise, ask your child, “What do you like about this picture?” or “What do you think?” This teaches the child to evaluate themselves and find value in their labors.

4. Don’t insult when you praise: When you’ve been working on a skill with a child, it can be tempting to want to point out how present efforts are better than previous attempts. The problem arises because once the comparison is made, the child is likely to focus on the negative. For example, if you’ve been trying to practice putting dishes away after eating and your child (finally!) does this chore, restrain from remarking, “This is great, why can’t you always put your dishes away?” The child ends up feeling badly about himself or herself and will not likely follow through next time. A better comment would be to point out the positives of this choice, such as saying, “Wow, when you put your dishes away, you have much more time to play.” This builds esteem and allows the child to remember for next time why the choice was positive!

Although it may seem like the semantics are unimportant, try paying attention to the way you praise and see if it makes a difference in your child’s response. You may find that using specific praise helps to get the results you want.

Emily Herber is a child and family therapist at The Center for Psychological Services

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