The Importance of Praise

Thursday, 11.08.2016

Praise, correctly used, is a powerful and indispensable tool that any parent can use to raise a child right. Kids World finds out more.

Imagine this typical scenario. Your child throws a temper tantrum after you tell her to go to bed. She starts throwing her toys and clothes around the room. Most parents will see red. Some will attempt to calm the child down, or reason with her.

Eventually the child does go to bed, but only after she’s picked up her stuff. This could be either her punishment for messing up, or that reasoning with her worked. You tuck her in, give her a goodnight kiss but oops, you forget to praise her for clearing up the mess.

Should you have praised her, or was it unnecessary as she was being disciplined? To many of us, praise should be meted out if our children do the things that meet our expectations within the social norm, or if it’s good and positive behavior that leads to an accomplishment.

In the above situation, it won’t matter to some parents that something remotely good came out of the experience (e.g. she put her stuff away). What they focus on is the initial undesirable behaviour, so they nag and scold, when in fact, they should praise.

Praising Her Won’t Spoil Her

Praising her for picking up her toys won’t turn her into a spoilt brat, even though it may seem that way. What matters is how the praise is given, and that’s where effective praising and effective parenting come into play.

Subconsciously, parents find themselves giving out love and approval to their children only when they are being “good”. They deny praise when kids are “bad”. How then, should this be tackled? Especially in the opening scenario, how should praise be given without spoiling the child?

It certainly helps if the praise is specific and within the right time frame. Be firm and genuine in your praising, not artificial or forced.

Here’s an example of artificial praising in the wrong time frame; that is, before she picks up her toys. It is actually unintentional manipulation of a child’s behaviour:

“Go and show me that you’re a good girl and pick your toys up. Okay, that’s a good girl.”

And here’s an example of specific praising in the right time frame, after she has cleared her toys voluntarily:

“I know you’re sorry for throwing a tantrum because you picked your toys up and put them away. Good girl.”

Praise Builds Self-Esteem

By praising genuinely and correctly, we bolster a child’s self-esteem, confidence and even integrity. We affirm the child’s positive actions, without overlooking her negative ones. The situation mentioned is an extreme example of how praise could have come into play.

There are more obvious situations, which usually involve accomplishments and good behaviour. But the bottom line is, children generally respond well to praise.

“Praise helps most when it conveys not only your approval but lots of information about what your child is doing right,” says Rex Forehand, co-author of Parenting the Strong-Willed Child.

Praising is part of the reward package that parents can give to their children. The first type of reward is of course, the material reward. Some children may, at first, respond only to material rewards, like a sweet, a toy, or money.

But child experts advise that once desired behaviour has been established with a material reward, it should be maintained by a combination of material and social rewards. Social rewards, as opposed to material rewards, are actions that someone adopts to create positive feelings in another person. Praise is a social reward.

Once you’ve combined material and social rewards for your child, you can progress on to just social rewards alone. This will inhibit the development of a situation where the child behaves well only to obtain the material reward. The child should eventually learn to “feel good” merely by the genuine, affirmative tone of your voice and the love and nurturing quality in your actions.

Following on are some strategies on how best to praise your child:

  • Affirm Realised Expectations
    Your husband is sick and resting at home on a school holiday. As he retreats to the bedroom for some rest, tell (don’t command) your four- and six-year-old kids that they can’t make too much noise or they’ll disturb daddy. 

    Throughout the day, as the children adhere to your expectations, praise them. When the day is over and your husband joins the rest of the family for dinner, express your pride in your kids to your husband on their good behaviour, and ensure they are within earshot.
  • Observe New Accomplishments
    Your little five-year-old boy has just learnt to perform a cartwheel, and he rushes home after school to tell you the fantastic news. You respond with, “Really? That’s great!” Then ask him to demonstrate to you his new skill. Your active presence and observation of his accomplishment serves to emphasise your verbal praise, which further fuels his confidence.
  • Praise Throughout the Learning Curve
    Your child is being toilet trained, and the first time he does it on the potty, reward him with praise. Even if he slips up subsequently, don’t be harsh on him as he might feel your praise wasn’t genuine the first time around. And if he does it consistently on the potty, continue to praise him each time and don’t consider it a given fact that he knows you’re proud of him. Always applaud your child’s efforts to improve.
  • When children help with housework, they may not accomplish much, but make sure their efforts are appreciated.Notice Appropriate Behaviour First
    Your child has finished her meal and with minimal sloppiness. But she hasn’t put her bowl in the sink. Instead of nagging at her, say, “you’ve finished eating. How neat you’ve been today… that’s good.” Pause, then say, “now don’t forget to clear your plate.” The child will soon realise that you took time first to notice the correct behaviour, before pointing out what needed to be done next to complete the task satisfactorily.
  • Offering Unconditional Praise
    Sometimes, your child needs to do absolutely nothing to receive praise from you. Out of the blue, tell her how much you love her, how glad you are that she is your child, and that even though you get angry at times, how much you still adore her. This does wonders to enhance a child’s sense of self-worth. She will feel that she doesn’t need to exhibit the correct behaviour or accomplish tasks successfully all the time in order to be loved and appreciated. Take time to celebrate the less obvious things in life, instead of waiting for major milestones or achievements to happen.
  • Praise that Serves the Child’s Purpose
    A child also has his own purposes to fulfill, not just his parents’. Usually, he will attempt to do these developmental activities with quiet determination, without you egging him on or under your watchful eye. Examples are, your baby trying to walk, your toddler trying to write, your school-going child trying to master his times tables, and even your child trying to perfect his piano playing.

    Once you’ve gotten wind of what your child is trying to do on his own independently and using his own initiative, use this observation to describe to him what you’ve noticed and that you are aware. Gradually, he will feel appreciated because he will realise that you’ve made the effort to support and encourage his independent attempts to learn and improve his skills.

While these guidelines for effective praise is by no means a comprehensive list, it will put you on the right footing to nurture a happy, well-adjusted child. “Remember that making your child feel special is one of your most important tasks as a parent,” says Anita Landau Hurtig, a paediatric psychologist from the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

“No one can build a child’s self-esteem the way a parent can.”

Avoiding the Praise Trap

Using praise the wrong way is more harmful than an abundance of praise. “The problem is not that praise itself is bad,” says Robert Walrath, a child psychologist in Bedford, NH, USA. “It’s that many parents and teachers are using it inappropriately. They think they have to be positive all the time, or their children will become psychologically damaged.”

In order to use praise correctly, here are a few common mistakes to avoid:

  1. Don’t flatter and gush. “The main problem with inflated praise is that kids eventually learn to tune it out. It then loses its ability to build confidence and erodes children’s trust – in themselves and you,” says Linda Braun, executive director of Families First, a parenting programme in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 
  2. Don’t praise too often, inappropriately. When the excessive praise is used for anything and everything, children “may have trouble appreciating their real accomplishments later on, when you praise them sincerely,” says Martin Seligman, author of The Optimistic Child
  3. When children help with housework, they may not accomplish much, but make sure their efforts are appreciated.Don’t overlook the child. This happens when there is an over-emphasis on the accomplishment, rather than the child. The child will end up equating his self-worth with his tangible successes. If he fails, then his self-esteem will dip drastically.
  4. Don’t pressure him. Alternate your ways of praise. If your child does something right and you reward him each time with a sticker or star, he’ll end up being overdriven and silently pressured. Your child should progress at his own pace without feeling that doing good is like taking part in a competition.

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