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Are We Ruining Our Children With Praise?
by Kim Romen, MSW, LCSW

Praising our children has all sorts of benefits.  A child who receives praise is more likely to praise others, praise increases self-esteem and motivation, and can change the parent's and child's view of the child.  Can we praise too much? Can we praise in the "wrong" way? Surprisingly, there are some things you might want to watch out for.  I'd like to give you some practical rules to help you make the most out of praising your child.

  • Praise immediately. It's more reinforcing to praise right away. It also sounds more natural. 

  • Yes, you can overdo praise. Praise should be frequent and consistent at first, then can be more intermittent. If your toddler put on his shoes for the first time, make a big deal over it, but if you praise him over everyday actions he may not pay attention to the praises he's truly earned. 

  • Be specific. Instead of "pretty drawing" try "look at the great tree you drew."  This also lets your child know you are really paying attention. 

  • Show enthusiasm. Smile. Say it with energy. A sincere, genuine feeling will come as you praise more often. 

  • Avoid sarcasm. "You finally got a good grade on your math" is to some degree canceling out the benefits praising brings. 

  • Point out positives for your child. If a child is constantly told by people around him the negative things he does he may begin to resent it and try to meet those standards. He will begin to believe that maybe it's not even worth behaving well, because maybe that's who he is. Show him that he is capable. Try "Your little brother took your toy and you didn't throw a tantrum. You showed great self-control!" 

  • Focus on behaviors he is currently struggling with. Praise your child before he engages in a negative behavior. Take advantage of the moments when he isn't necessarily doing anything special, but isn't engaging in any negative behavior, either. This is hard, because when our kids are behaving well, we are able to relax. This is very proactive. ("You are playing nicely with your blocks.  You're not throwing or yelling!"). 

  • Don't brag. Easy does it in public. Others won't appreciate it and it can put pressure on your child to perform. Do tell your spouse in front of your child, but be sensitive around siblings.

  • Tell the truth. If when learning to write, the "A" didn't quite look like an "A," praise the effort and what they did well and point out things they could do next time to improve. "Your lines are very straight. Next time connect this line with this line."

  • Focus on the action, not the child. Children have difficulties separating the idea of self and what they do. Praise what they did. "What a good job keeping your hands to your self" instead of "good boy." 

  • Don't forget about body language. Sometimes a big smile, a high-five, a thumbs-up, or a pat on the back works just as good.

If you feel that there may be some mental health needs that are complicating behavior or would like some help making these changes, seek assistance from a mental health professional. Overall, even if you don't praise "the right way," praising is a very positive thing and will produce good results. Learning and using these rules will increase your chances for great results. 

Article written by Kim Romen, MSW, LCSW. Published in the Ahwatukee Foothills News on October 16, 2007.

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