In praise of praise

When children bring home report cards, even the most well-meaning parent is tempted to utter words like: “Oh, what a pity that you just missed getting full marks for your geography!”
Many parents still believe that the way to motivate a child is to point out their mistakes. A bright-eyed 3-year-old proudly walks into a room showing off the fact that he has dressed himself. His parent, instead of exclaiming “Wow, you have put on your shorts and your T-shirt!” says “Come here and I will put your shoes on properly – you have put them on the wrong feet.”  Or, to a 5 year old who has tried hard to make her own bed, an over-critical parent walks over to the bed and remakes it – because the duvet was a bit crooked! How motivated will these children feel to do these things again?

Many parents and teachers have said to me over the years “But surely praise is just praise -why get technical about it? It is crucial, if we wish our children to strive to achieve the best they can, that we find as much to praise and be positive about as possible. And here we come to the difference between evaluative and descriptive praise.

Two kinds of praise

Evaluative praise emphasises the final product, the achievement, the personality of the person – and not the intrinsic worth of the person or the effort which was put into the process.
“You are so brilliant!”
“You are such a good cook”
“Your picture is beautiful”

There is nothing essentially wrong with these remarks – they just do not put much effort into what it is that is actually being praised.
When someone uses evaluative praise, it is very difficult to accept it. “Thanks, I know I am brilliant” is not easy to say. So, people then usually deny it and deflect the praise. “No, I am not at all brilliant”.
It also sounds insincere and shallow – there is not real depth to the praise.

It also has the effect of setting people up to keep up this standard. “What if I cook an ordinary meal next time?”
When a child brings home another picture from pre-school, the busy parent will often say automatically: “It’s beautiful”,  without really looking at it. The child is left with the feeling that the parent does not really like it – there was no real attempt to LOOK at the detail that went into it.

Descriptive praise, on the other hand, has the effect of making a person feel really appreciated – as if an effort was made to connect to them.
“This meal was so tasty – I really loved the sauce you used on the chicken.”
“Your picture is so colourful – you have really filled the whole page with bright patterns.”
“I just love your Mother’s Day card – the butterflies and the flowers are so pretty.”

These comments show that you really took the trouble to notice the effort as well as the end product. It is this type of praise that really impacts on positive self-esteem.

An important part of the process when descriptive praise is used, is that the child is able to then praise himself.
Just look at a child climbing the bars of a jungle gym. Instead of the instinctive remark “You are so brave” rather try saying “Just look at you – you are nearly at the highest bar.”
The child then turns around and says “I am such a brave girl”

This is the essence of descriptive praise – the parent describes, with enthusiasm, what the child has done. The child is then able to internally evaluate herself. In this way, children learn to achieve because it makes them feel good – and not because they become reliant on the evaluation of someone else. There are far too many adults who have grown up to be totally dependent on the opinions of others.

Criticise to build

Of course a parent cannot be positive all the time. If a child has a poor report card, the parent has to comment on it. Try to always look for the positive first – and then make a time to talk about the problem areas. In the case of the 3-year-old who dressed himself, praise his effort first. Then later remark that maybe he should try to change his shoes – and then give him a gentle lesson on how to find out which shoe goes on which foot.

Destructive and judgmental comments only serve to shred self-confidence and entrench feelings of inadequacy. It is always possible to criticise in a way that will  make the point while still enabling the child to feel okay about himself.

Finally, we all need to hear something positive about ourselves every day. Especially in the case of the more challenging children, it so easy to fall into negative patterns of communication.

Criticism and negative labeling become entrenched. It is vital to reverse this downward spiral and to look for the positives. Find things to praise descriptively. “I love it when you smile - your whole face lights up.”  “It was so kind of you to play with Lisa's baby so nicely so that we could have a quiet cup of really are good with little children.”

Even when this child then becomes a demanding monster 5 minutes later, you can never take away that positive input. And praise is spurs children on to repeat the behaviour that earned the accolade.

Very often, the place to start in the process of working towards more effective discipline, is in  more frequent doses of genuine descriptive praise.

Try it out – it really does work!

Do you believe praise can be done badly? Are children too reliant on us for positive feedback?

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