Nothing like telling you to come back tomorrow for Part 2 and then going AWOL for a week! <ahem> But, here it is…Part 2. We talked last time about some of the information that calls praise into question, but I said I’m not convinced that I want to fully eliminate praise from my repertoire of positive parenting. It seems to be an instinctive part of parenting! There’s also research that talks about the benefits of praise, and when I read that, my minds end up swirling. Don’t praise…praise more…what’s a parent supposed to do?
Here are some of the finer points of praise that I’ve stumbled into and have attempted to implement in my own parenting practices (some with more success than others):
Don’t praise for being || I try hard not to let the bulk of my positive conversations for my kids revolve around things they are. “You’re so pretty!” or “You’re so smart!” don’t really tap into the powerful side of praise. They’re passive and conditional. There may come a day when your child is no longer pretty or smart or fast or energetic. Of course, you know this wouldn’t impact your love for them one bit. But if they’ve built their security of identity and relationship with you around these areas, it places their identity and relationship with you in jeopardy, at least in their minds.
Don’t praise for regular living || My children are not awesome for breathing. Brushing their teeth, picking up their toys, helping with chores, putting clothes in the laundry…these are all expected tasks (at least by a certain age). A heavy emphasis on praising for these types of inane behaviors seems insincere to children and can encourage a child to become more motivated by extrinsic factors than intrinsic factors. I don’t want to wind up creating praise junkies who only do things in search of their next praise hit! Rather than praise, if I feel compelled to acknowledge one of these behaviors, I try to show appreciation. “I really appreciate how you brushed your teeth without me asking!” or “Thank you for your help with the dishes tonight!” are subtly but powerfully different from statements like, “You rock for brushing your teeth without me asking!” or “Great job on the dishes tonight!”
We do praise (pretty heavily) for emerging behaviors of regular living. Isla is currently potty training, and every success is a party! But the more she does it, the more the praise will naturally wean back. It’s not like I’ll be throwing potty parties for her when she leaves for college…
I love to watch you play! || I read this article several years back, and it turned my whole perspective on praise on its ears. I love the way Rachel Macy Stafford applies this to more general aspects of parenting over here. There is so much value in suspending all judgment and just talking with our children about how much we delight in seeing them, hearing them, or experiencing them in their lives. Do any of us really want anything more fundamental than that? We want to be seen and we want to be loved. This is such a simple and powerful way to engage positively with our children.
State what you see and ask questions || Alfie Kohn’s work is another thing that has thrown my former perceptions about parenting and praise into disarray, and these two techniques have been particularly helpful to me, especially when my immediate instinct is to talk, talk, talk in response to my kids. Rather than “judging” their work with my praise, can I simply make an observation about it? “You sure had a lot of math problems to do!” or “Look at that pink elephant you drew!” Questions are another great way to respond because they create an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation. “You were really running hard out there. How did you find the energy after such a long day?”
One of my favorite examples he gives comes from this article:
If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: “Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack.” This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing.
I love how this takes a situation in which I’d normally be inclined to praise and instead acknowledges my child’s generosity while helping him/her develop a savvier level of emotional intelligence. That opportunity for growth would be lost if I simply said, “Good sharing, Isla!” (Now…if only I could remember to implement this more in the moment…sharing is not going so well with our 3 and 1 year olds lately!)
Praise hard work rather than results || This is an area of research that fascinates me and deserves much more than a short paragraph. But the cliff notes version is that praise, especially praise for identity, can foster laziness. I want my kids to be less attached to outcomes and less worried about failure but be more committed to the process and doing the work. For instance, when a good report card comes home, rather than saying, “Straight As? Wow! I’m so proud of you! What a smarty!” I’d rather say something like, “Wow! You got some really high grades this quarter! You must be working hard at getting your homework in on time! I know that was hard last year–look at how much you’ve grown!”
For more information about this, our counselor has suggested we read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck. I’ve only skimmed a bit of it so I can’t say this is a first-hand recommendation, but our counselor says good things so I’m passing it along to you while I add it to my giant to-read pile.
I’m curious to know…How do you approach praise in your family? Have you tried to implement positive alternatives to traditional praise?