By Chris Taylor, MFT, Author "Back to Basics"
As a parent, life is full of balancing on many fine lines of too little and too much. Communication can undoubtedly go into that category of “hard to balance.” Communication is a prime tool in raising children, it affects their reaction, their interaction with others, and their expectation as they grow. Thus, it is important to keep communication positive, and less negative, no matter what the situation you may be facing. One of the even larger parts of communication to balance is praise and criticism. How often should you praise your child? How much is too much? At what point is praise considered constructive and not constructive?
In the past praise used to be what a child would get as a reward for doing something right and good. The opposite was criticism or sometimes punishment, in the form of verbal or physical, for doing something bad or wrong. Then there was a shift in the views on praise and criticism, and their effect on self-esteem. Now, praise is considered a ‘motivator,’ a way to enact positive discipline. The goal in offering praise as a form of positive communication is to help our children grow, and to form effective communication (read more on that in my previous blog); to change their mindset and how they view themselves but also their relationship with you as a parent and others.
How Much Is Too Much?
The key to praising as a constructive tool is to use it in moderation, and praise the right actions rather than the wrong ones, and to not praise qualities, such as personality. For example, you want to praise your child’s effort on an exam, and how well they did or how hard they tried, rather than praise how brilliant and smart they are. This leads to possible let-downs later, and leads to them being labeled or labeling themselves (ie, ‘the smart kid’, ‘the athletic one’).
Remember, the goal in praise is to help our children grow; we want them to take our constructive praise and use it to help themselves. If we dish it out too often, or at the wrong moments, they will become immune to it and one of two things can begin to happen: 1) they will only act in order to receive your attention and praise, or 2) they will not pay any attention to your praise because it will go ‘in one ear and out the other’ as they say.
How to Praise
When it is time to offer that statement of praise, what is the best way to do it? First you must be specific and make sure there is an actual reason for praise. Don’t force the praise to where it seems unnatural, for teens especially, this will not go over well.
In addition to acting natural, make sure your body language matches your words. When you are issuing your statement, make sure your attention is focused on your child, and not on your phone or as you are walking away. You want to say the statement in a meaningful way, and do not bookend it with a diminishing statement (a “but” statement) such as ‘you did a great job cleaning up, I wish you did that more often’.
If you want to take your praise a step farther, try changing pronouns such as “I” to “You” -- ‘you should be proud of yourself’. And lastly, if you are praising to be constructive, even in failure, always challenge your child to think a little. Ask them ‘what would you do differently next time?’
If giving praise seems unnatural at first to you, or your child seems unexpectant to receive it, just remember this quote: “Giving praise is like giving a present—you complain and worry maybe the other person won’t like it, but really, it makes both of you feel good.”