Praise worth receiving

When our children and teens are at their best, it’s easy to enjoy them and not too hard to guide them into good habits. When they are uncooperative, argumentative, disrespectful or whingeing, however, we all know how easy it is to become irritated. We end up arguing back, nagging, threatening or shouting. I wrote the book Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting because I know family life doesn’t have to be like this. We the parents need to do things differently.

We’ve all heard that we should praise our children frequently to improve their behaviour and build up their self-esteem. If you’re like most parents I know, you probably say: “Well done”, “Wonderful”, “Brilliant”. Or if they’re finding a task difficult, you might say: “You’re doing really well!”,

“Keep up the good work!” or “That was amazing!”. As well-intentioned as this type of praise is, it doesn’t accomplish what we want it to
do. It’s too general, vague and, in truth, exaggerated.

There’s another problem with this type of inflated praise. New research in educational psychology by investigators such as Carol Dweck suggests that praising ability or excellent outcomes often backfires, diminishing motivation as well as performance. It is more effective to focus praise on the child’s effort – on what the child has done, not on an ability he can’t control, or the final result, which he may not easily be able
to replicate.

A better way to motivate your children is through “descriptive praise”. This is about commenting on exactly what your child has done that is right, or just OK, or even what he hasn’t done wrong. If you like the way your child is eating his dinner, describe exactly what you like: “You’re not complaining about the food.” Or: “You tasted the peas. That was brave.” Say it with a smile and in a pleased tone of voice. This is an effective way of communicating your values.

Because descriptive praise is specific, it cannot be argued with. It is fact. You are not making sweeping statements that can easily be disputed. Instead, you are describing, in detail, what your child is doing that pleases you. Maybe his behaviour today was just a small improvement over how it was yesterday. You can show how pleased you are that your child is refraining from doing wrong: “You’re sharing the Lego and there’s no grabbing.”

Good vibes

You may worry that descriptive praise will create a “praise junkie”, a child who behaves well or does good work only to get the parents’ approval. That is the opposite of what happens. At first, children are motivated to do the right thing because they want to please us. The more they hear about exactly what they are doing right, the sooner they internalise these standards of behaviour or academic performance. After a while, children start to do the right thing because it feels right.

This is not the only tool that parents need in their kit. But in my four decades of working with families, I have found descriptive praise to be the most powerful technique for motivating children to want to co-operate and do their best. That’s why it is always the first skill I teach. When parents learn how to use this new way of communicating, it can transform family life, improving children’s behaviour and self-confidence and guiding them to become the best they can be.

Noël Janis-Norton is the founder and director of the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting programmes.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis