How many times have you told your child “well done”, “good boy” or “good girl”? Have you ever said it without being fully present and focusing solely on your child?
A good way to imagine how this feels for a child is to think about a work appraisal. Imagine that you are having your annual appraisal at work and in the run up to it you have been working as hard as you can on a project, giving it your all. You have sacrificed personal time and have put in over and above your contracted hours. You are really proud of the results that you have achieved and even prouder that you stuck it out and didn’t give up when the going was really tough and you questioned your abilities. Now think about that appraisal again and imagine your boss nods and says “well done, good girl” while looking at a computer screen. How would you feel? Valued? Respected? Noticed?
Imagine the same appraisal and this time your boss says “I must admit I was really proud of all of the work you put into that project. Your extra time and efforts really didn’t go unnoticed. I noticed that you took work home with you and noticed that you came in early. I also noticed that you stuck it out when things got tough”. How would that make you feel?
What does it mean to a child when we say “good boy”? Do they know what ‘good’ means? Do they know what they did to make you happy? What about when we say “well done”? Well done for what? What about if they haven’t done something, but have persevered for hours, ‘failing’ each time at the task in hand, be that tying a shoelace, putting a shape in a shape sorter or building a tower of blocks. Is there effort not worth anything?
Most praise used by parents is incredibly shallow and superficial. It focuses on outcomes and not efforts and doesn’t tell the child anything about what they have done, what they should do or how they have made others feel. Praise needs to be specific. Instead of “well done” say “I noticed that you’ve been building that tower for ages. It took you a long time to finally be able to make the blocks stay upright didn’t it?”. Praise needs to show your child that you’re interested in what they do. “Tell me about the picture that you’ve just painted. What made you paint the cat orange?” instead of “That’s a lovely picture darling”. Praise needs to be effort, not outcome focussed. “Tying shoelaces is hard isn’t it? You’re working so hard to learn how to do it, you’ll get there in time” rather than “well done, you did it” finally when the outcome is achieved.
Think too about the amount you praise your child. What might happen if you over praise them? Many people think that you can’t praise too much, if it makes the child happy then how can you possibly do too much of it? Research has shown that praising can actually inhibit the child’s intrinsic motivation. Ultimately you want them to do things because they want to. If you constantly praise their actions you run the risk of them only doing things to please you in order to be praised. Remove the praise and the behaviour disappears too. In a sense praise is a form of compliance, in much the same way as peer pressure. Older children often do things in order to fit in with their peers and get their regard. Younger children can fall into this trap and be more likely to bow to peer pressure if they grow needing constant praise and assurance for everything they do
If this has piqued your interest and you’d like to learn more about the impact of praise on children, or what to say to raise them with intrinsic motivation and self-esteem, check out my Gentle Discipline Book – available HERE in the UK, HERE in the USA, HERE in Canada, HERE in Australia/New Zealand and HERE in the rest of the world.