Praise really does improve how our kids behave. (The key is HOW we give it.)
Picture three preschoolers using sidewalk chalk at a playdate. Two are drawing a huge rainbow. The third keeps grabbing the chalk out of their hands. What do you do?
We’re conditioned to zero in on the bad behavior. But imagine what would happen if, instead, you bent down next to the drawing pair and said, “Wow! I love all the colors you picked and how you’re working together. Such a giant rainbow!”
More chalk drawing, less chalk grabbing, that’s what would happen.
Catch your child doing something good.
“Bad behavior is more obvious than good behavior,” says Sue Westwood, a senior lecturer in health and life sciences at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. “You’re much more likely to notice when your child is yelling than you are to notice when your child is quietly reading a book,” she adds.
But when you see them doing something right and say so, everything changes.
“Praise is a built-in instant feedback loop,” says Westwood, who’s behind a new public-health campaign about the power of praise. “When the parent catches the child being good, they praise, which makes the child more likely to repeat the good behavior.”
But wait, doesn’t praise go to kids’ heads?
Many of us have heard warnings to skip praising kids. Giving too much “Good job!” and “High five!” praise, some critics have cautioned, risks raising an unmotivated, entitled “praise junkie” who only does things for the pat on the back.
Nobody wants a kid who cares more about approval than the thing he or she is being approved for doing. But the solution isn’t to withhold all praise.
The key is HOW we give it.
All ages benefit from praise, and children under 5 absolutely need it, says De Montfort psychologist Carole Sutton. That’s because toddlers and preschoolers are just developing their sense of competence and self-worth.
“It’s the easiest age to teach helpful, kind, and empathic behaviors,” she told me. “And its impacts are life-long.”
Too often, though, by the time “terrible two’s” kick in, we get stuck correcting bad behavior rather than reinforcing good behavior. And the more tired or depressed we feel, the harder it is to remember to appreciate the good.
Just being aware of what to do—and why it’s so important—can make a huge difference in kids’ behavior and self esteem.
Think in-the-moment encouragement, not empty compliments.
Sutton’s team taught parents of 2- to 4-year-olds the basics of effective praise and asked them to offer it at least five times a day. After just four weeks, their study found, the families reported improved behavior and less hyperactivity and inattention, compared to a control group.
Their research and others’ shows that the right kind of praise:
- Encourages the social behaviors we want kids to learn (through reinforcement)
- Helps them become aware of their own strengths and abilities
- Improves attention and focus
- Makes kids feel more secure and happy (better connected to us)
Sutton considers praise nothing less than an investment in future emotional health. “In my own PhD work, my data showed that preschool children who were effectively out of control could be brought to a calmer, cooperative state by the consistent, reassuring use of simple, regular consistent praise—and this is what our ‘5 Praises a Day’ data also showed,” she told me.
“I can understand that occasionally parents might overdo the positive feedback,” she added, “but I have not encountered a single instance of this phenomenon in all my practice.”
Beyond “catching them being good,” this is the easy, constructive way to praise that the De Montfort team taught parents in their study:
Describe the positive behavior.
By saying exactly what it is you like, your child gets what you mean. That’s much more convincing—and genuine—than vague praise like, “You’re a good boy.”
Examples: “I really appreciate how you put all your toys back in the basket. Thank you!” “You let Noah use your sand shovel. Good for you!” “You remembered to wash your hands before I even told you—nice job!”
Focus your praise on your child’s actions and efforts rather than characteristics about your child.
Avoid personal brag words like “You’re so clever,” “You’re so talented,” or “You’re so pretty.” Aside from being less believed by kids as they get older, “person praise,” as it’s known, is much less motivating than “process praise,” or talking about actions they’re doing. Ideally, focus on things that are within your child’s control to change.
Examples: “I can tell you worked really hard on that new puzzle.” “You put on your socks all by yourself—wow!”
In 2013, a long-term study out of the University of Chicago showed that when preschoolers received process praise at ages 1, 2, and 3, it predicted a growth mindset toward learning and a desire for challenges 5 years later, and they did better at school. (Parents of daughters, take note: Boys’ parents in this study tended to give more process praise than parents of girls—and the boys grew up more likely to believe that their intelligence could be improved.)
Look for little changes, improvements, and successes.
Don’t wait until your child has mastered a skill to praise it. In fact, it’s less helpful to praise things that come easily or naturally to a child. Better: Encourage enthusiasm for trying. That’s why you want to be on the lookout for progress and effort—not just achievement.
Examples: “I liked it when you asked if you could help me set the table; that was very helpful.” “Wow, you really kept going on that block castle even after the wall fell down!”
Mix in nonverbal praise.
A hug, a smile, a wink, or a pat on the shoulder can also communicate love, approval, and appreciation, say the British psychologists.
Bonus: A smile or a hug can also be less distracting than words. If you say, “You’re using so many interesting colors in that picture,” your child will probably stop to look up at you. But if you give her a gentle stroke on her head, she’ll get the message that you’re proud of her and keep drawing.
Children are also motivated by praise they don’t expect more than a steady stream of “Good job, good job” that they expect to hear for every little thing, research has shown.
Surprise your child with an occasional reward for good behavior—not a material reward, like a new toy, but a fun extra, such as your attention or a new privilege.
Examples: “Thanks for picking up the toys—let’s go to the park to celebrate.” “Thanks for helping me fix dinner. You can choose what we have for dessert.”Finishing touches to get the most out of praise:
Be consistent about it. As in most things with kids, being consistent is one of the best ways to underscore effectiveness. Everyone in your child’s life (especially both parents) should try to praise the same things, Sutton told me. “We sometimes recommend that parents sit down and work out how they hope their children will behave—this is relevant for all ages—and then make a point of commending those behaviors when they occur,” she says.
If you’re into quantified parenting, the researchers suggest a simple chart to track your progress.
Amp up your expectations over time. Praise children of different ages for different things, the researchers say. “You might praise a 2-year-old for leaving the park when asked and a 5-year-old for having a go at tying their shoelaces,” says Westwood.
Be genuine about it. Even young kids have a brilliant radar for fakery. But when we look for authentic reasons for giving them a pat on the back, our words are more authentic than just chirping “Good job, good job, good job” on autopilot or using over-the-top superlatives (“best violin player in the world!”).
“Praise, when it’s sincere, can be healing and can change lives,” Sutton says.
That’s something we can all applaud AND high-five.
—Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the Start; The Happiest Toddler on the Block; Like Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.