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How To Use Praise Wisely To Get More From Your Children

Praise – and plenty of it – is often seen as a given in good parenting. However, it’s not quite that simple. It’s certainly true that praise is an important part of the job of raising happy children, but you have to do it right. Otherwise you’ll do more harm than good.

Don’t worry – once you understand the pitfalls they’re easy enough to avoid, and whether your child is two or twelve, the principles are the same.

Keep it in proportion

The expression, ‘You can’t have too much of a good thing’ certainly doesn’t apply to praise. That doesn’t mean you should be stingy, but you should give praise in proportion to your child’s achievements. If you over-praise them you devalue the currency.

If you tell them they’re superbly brilliant when they do something pretty average, what will you say when they do something really brilliant?

If every little thing they achieve is rewarded with copious praise, they’ll be terrified of failing you. And they don’t need that kind of pressure.

This is the crux of the problem with praising your child too often or too fulsomely – your child craves your praise so much that you’ve created a real pressure you never intended.

You can recognise your child’s achievements with thanks as well as praise. That takes off some of the pressure, and allows you to acknowledge them without being effusive. What’s more, it’s a great way of reinforcing good behaviour, and reassuring them that you notice when they get things right, not just when they go wrong. ‘Thanks for putting your dirty mug by the sink.’ ‘Thanks for getting in the car without any fuss.’ ‘You’ve put all your toys back in the box – thank you.’

Praise them for the right things

Have you ever stopped to think about what you praise your child for? I know parents who praise their children most frequently for winning things. In some cases, it’s sports, in others it’s school work. I know others whose praise is largely focused on polite behaviour. Or looking beautifully turned out. Or being ‘good’.

The things we choose to praise our children for tell them more about our values than almost anything else. If they get all the best responses from you for looking beautiful, or for winning, or for eating everything on their plate, this is what they will unconsciously assume is the most important thing, and they’ll put all their efforts into it in order to gain your approval.

This means you have a huge responsibility to praise them for the right things.

For example, are you more likely to praise them for winning than for trying hard? No of course you’re not, but a lot of other parents would. It doesn’t mean you can’t ever say, ‘Well done’ if they’re pleased with themselves for doing well in their reading or winning their race. But be conscious of the balance you give them.

On the plus side, this means praise is a hugely effective way to imbue your children with the values that matter to you. Telling them, ‘I was impressed that you played with Ali when she was feeling new and shy’ tells your child that kindness and considerateness are important qualities. This is a positive way to use praise (while still keeping it in proportion) to encourage your child to be hard working, thoughtful, unselfish, courageous, determined and kind. And whatever else you think matters.

Make it specific

If you want a little praise to go a long way, your child will value it far more if you show you’re really interested in their achievements.

Which do you think they’d rather hear: ‘What a lovely drawing!’ or ‘What a lovely drawing – I do like the way you’ve managed to make the horse look as if it’s really moving. How did you do that?’ Yep – be specific with your praise if you can and ask them questions too. That will really make them glow.

This is also a great strategy when something doesn’t really warrant praise but you still want your child to feel good. If their drawing is, frankly, nothing special, you certainly don’t want to tell them it’s brilliant – you’re setting them up for a fall if you keep telling them they’re fabulous or beautiful or clever when they’re in fact perfectly average. Questioning is a good way to sidestep that danger altogether. So when they show you their average painting you can say, ‘Ooh – let me see. How did you decide what colours to use?’ They’ll be chuffed you’re showing real interest, and you won’t have set an unrealistic standard for them.

Pride is praise

It’s a very common habit these days for parents to tell their children they’re proud of them. You’d think that would only be a good thing, wouldn’t you? And yet it’s a form of praise, and you do your kids no favours telling them how proud they make you.

Here’s the problem. Pride in your child is a strong emotion, so what you’re inadvertently telling your child is that your emotional wellbeing is predicated on their achievements. That’s a hell of a burden to place on them, on top of all the other pressures that praise can bring.

But you do feel proud, don’t you? And you want to let them know they’ve done well. That’s fine. Just keep your emotions out of it. Your child will be delighted to hear that you admire how they kept their temper under control. Tell them you wish you were as good at making friends, or ask them how they managed to learn their moves for the nativity play. All these things will make them feel good, without feeling you have an emotional investment in them being able to repeat it every time.

Once in a blue moon, when your child does something truly remarkable, it won’t hurt to tell them you feel proud. But limit yourself to, say, half a dozen times through their whole childhood so it doesn’t become a habit (no, I’m not kidding). And, as with praise, think very hard about what values you’re imparting in your choice of what to be proud of – and whether you’re inadvertently setting a high bar for them in future.

Of course, you’re welcome to feel proud of them as often as you like. Just don’t inflict it on them by saying it out loud.

Don’t tell them they’re beautiful

“Aren’t you handsome in that outfit?’ ‘Don’t you look pretty?’ It’s easy to say these things to our kids, but what we’re telling them is that being physically beautiful is important. When they grow up to find they’re simply nice-looking like most other people, they’ll hate it. After all, you’ve spent their childhood signalling that great physical beauty is the thing to aspire to.

So you can say, ‘What a pretty dress!’ Or ‘That really suits you.’ By all means let them know that blue goes with their eyes, or they’ve put together a great combination of clothes (if they have). But not too often – because looks aren’t that important – and don’t give the impression that things they can’t change about their appearance are of any significance.


Richard Templar is the author of the global best-selling “The Rules of… ” series. The Rules of Everything is published by Pearson, priced at £12.99, and is available from Amazon and all good book stores.