Have you ever found yourself praising your child’s efforts in a game or a dance recital, only to be met with denial or discomfort? As parents, it is disheartening when our well-intentioned praise doesn’t seem to resonate with our children. The truth is that traditional praise, though well-meaning, might not always align with their values and can lead to rejection of the compliments we offer. So, what can we do to foster a more positive connection with our children? The answer lies in the magic of encouragement.
The Pitfalls of Praise
Praise is often expressed in general terms like “great job” or “you’re awesome,” which conveys our feelings and judgments about a specific action or accomplishment. However, this form of praise can sometimes fall short of making a genuine impact on our children. They might not believe the praise, feel uncomfortable, or even perceive it as manipulation, especially when it does not resonate with their own value system.
The Power of Encouragement
Instead of relying on generic praise, let us explore the concept of noticing and acknowledging, or in other words: encouragement. Encouragement is specific, non-judgmental, and focuses on acknowledging efforts and progress rather than simply applauding the outcomes. By using encouragement, we create a nurturing environment where our children feel genuinely seen and appreciated.
Examples of Encouragement
- “You did it!” – Acknowledge the effort put into completing a task, regardless of the outcome.
- “You put your plate away!” – Recognize small acts of responsibility and independence.
- “You and your brother are really getting along together!” – Highlights positive interactions and relationships.
- “You worked really hard on that.” -Recognize the effort invested in a project, regardless of the result.
To gain a deeper understanding into these principles in action, let’s imagine we are playing basketball, and you believe you lack basketball talent. Suppose you manage to make a three-pointer, and I respond by praising you, saying, “you are good at basketball,” or “you are amazing.” What would be your initial reaction? Your brain might instinctively reject it, thinking, “no, I am not. You don’t know what a good basketball player looks like.”
Now, consider the same scenario, but this time, after you make the three-pointer, I choose to encourage you by saying, “You made that shot!” How does your brain respond now? It’s likely that you will break into a smile and think, “Yes, I did make that shot, and it was awesome!” By using encouragement instead of praise, we enable a positive and empowering internal dialogue, fostering a genuine sense of accomplishment and self-worth. We dramatically up the odds of positive self-talk.
I vividly recall an incident involving a child who consistently misbehaved during lunchtime in the cafeteria. On that particular day, I was on location modeling some of the principles I’d previously taught in a staff training. The child was being loud and disruptive, but instead of lecturing him I focused on the positive behavior of the two kids sitting next to him. I acknowledged them for the respectful and quiet nature in which they were eating lunch. Surprisingly, the misbehaving child asked me if he was being respectful and quiet. While walking away, I responded by saying, “not yet” but I’d returned to check on him later.
Remarkably, in response to my feedback, he promptly sat still on the bench and started to exhibit more quiet and respectful behaviors. I quickly returned and noticed and acknowledged him for his efforts in being respectful and quiet. I didn’t tell him what a “good job” he was doing but I merely noticed and acknowledged his improved behavior. Not to my surprise, his behavior continued to improve as I passed by several more times during the lunch period, each time noticing and acknowledging his positive actions.
As the lunch period drew to a close, the child’s teacher arrived to gather the class to return to the classroom. The misbehaving child, now transformed by positive interactions of noticing and acknowledging turned to the paraprofessional urging her to share with his teacher how well he had behaved during lunch. Indeed she did.
This powerful experience reminded me of the effectiveness of noticing and acknowledging positive behavior rather than resorting to conventional praise. Again, by doing so, we create a space for children to recognize their own achievements fostering genuine self-affirmation and desire to improve further.
The Impact of What we Focus on
We can imagine how a marriage might suffer if one partner constantly focuses on the other’s flaws. During one of my workshops I asked, “if your spouse only focused on your flaws, how long would that marriage last?” The sweet mother in the front yelled, “thirteen years.” Her answer broke my heart, but at the same time was a cruel reminder and wakeup call for me to be intentional on what I want to focus on in my relationships. Similarly, what we focus on with our children greatly influences our parent-child relationship. Parents who concentrate on their children’s successes and strengths and consistently notice and acknowledge them, tend to show up more positively and happily and foster a stronger bond with their kids.
Our parenting approach can significantly impact our children’s self-perception and emotional wellbeing. By replacing generic praise with thoughtful and specific encouragement, we create a positive environment where our children can truly believe in their accomplishments. So, let’s celebrate their efforts, focus on their strengths, and nurture stronger bonds that will last a lifetime. Together, we can empower our children to thrive and become the best version of themselves.