Raise Your Kids Right: What to Say Instead of Praising

8 years ago
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"What kids do need is unconditional support, love with no strings attached. That’s not just different from praise –- it’s the opposite of praise. "Good job!" is conditional. It means we’re offering attention and acknowledgment and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us." -- Alfie Kohn

If you've heard praise isn't good for kids, you may be wondering how else you can give your kid positive feedback.  After all, you know you need at least seven positive interactions for every negative interaction to maintain a good relationship. While hugs and smiles go a long way, you're in constant verbal interaction with your child, and your most common word is probably "Good!"  Besides, there are things you'd like him to learn about how to be in the world. How else can you guide him?

The short answer is that our children need to be accepted and loved, no matter what. (That's the definition of unconditional love.)  The evaluation inherent is praise is what's problematic. 

But that doesn't mean you can't find positive ways to interact with your child, hopefully many of them, all day long.  And it doesn't mean you can't help him notice the effect of his choices. Here are some examples.

Instead of: "Good sharing!"

Try: "Wow! Look how happy you made your brother."

(Why? We all want to guide our child, and that does involve value judgments on our part.  But instead of just explaining things as good and bad, take the time to help your child see his power in the world.  Why does it matter what he does? Rather than telling him that he's good when he acts in accordance with a value that's important to you, point out the result.  That way he can decide whether to repeat the behavior to get that result -- rather than just to get your praise.)

Instead of: "Yes, that's a good painting!"

Try: "I saw you working hard on that painting. Can you tell me about it?"

(Why?  You're not expecting her to be Van Gogh at four.  What you want is for her to enjoy the exploration, the process -- not the product. If you tell her "Good painting!" she'll race through three more of them just to hear you say it again.  But once she starts thinking about the painting herself, she may decide to work on it some more -- or to try a new approach.)

Instead of: "I'm so proud of you!"

Try: "You must be so proud of yourself!"

(Why? Because if he's to take pride in his accomplishments, he needs to be the judge and the source of the pride. You don't want his self-esteem dependent on other people's feedback, even yours.)

Instead of: "Good job!"

Try:"You did it!" or "Wow! Look at you up there!"

(He needs to know you noticed that he did it, and maybe that you're impressed, if you are. But you're mirroring his feelings of excitement and pride, not telling him what to feel.  Leave the evaluation of whether it's "good" to him.)

Does that mean you can't influence your child by telling her that you like what she's doing?  Not at all.  It's fine to express your own feelings. The danger is when our child gets the message that she's only good enough if she does things our way.

Instead of:"Big girls help Mommy."

Try: "I like it when you help me. Thank you."

(Why? You're teaching your child how to have a relationship with another person.  She needs to know -- without guilt trips -- that what she does has an effect on the other person, so she can choose her actions. It isn't about evaluating her as a human being.)

Remember that non-specific praise backfires. 

Instead of: "You're such an angel today."

Try: "I'm having such a good time being with you today.  I love it when we have so much fun together."

(Why? Your child knows she isn't a little angel, she's a fallible human being -- and if you forget that, she'll need to show you by acting out in the worst way she can think of. Just too much pressure!)

There is one kind of general positive feedback that works, because it's feedback about you.

Instead of: "You're a good boy."

Try: "I am so glad I get to be your mom. I love you, no matter what!"

Dr. Laura Markham is a clinical psychologist as well as a mother.  Her website is Aha! Parenting ... making the world a better place -- one family at a time.

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