Feel Free to Elaborate: Using Praise More Effectively

By Kelly Carcione

What we say to our children matters. Inherently we know this yet we often spend more time telling our children what not to do than commenting constructively on their efforts and triumphs.

I’m sure you’ve heard the theory that we praise our children too often; rewards are given for every small achievement in the name of building self-esteem, that telling a child that he’s smart too often will lead to a life full of anxiety. So, to praise or not to praise? As it turns out, it’s more a question of how we use praise to encourage achievement and cultivate enthusiasm in our children.

Volumes have been written on this topic, but it really boils down to this: Be specific, without judgment. If I say “Good job!” to a child who just completed a puzzle, I am sending the message that I think that completing the puzzle is good. I haven’t said much to commend the effort and I could even inadvertently send the message that not completing the puzzle is bad—especially to that poor kid next to him who is struggling with the first piece. Yikes!

You might view this as nitpicking, but consider how much more specific we often are when dealing with conflict or discipline. If a child throws a puzzle on the floor, we might say, “Let’s keep the puzzle on the table.” We would never say “Bad job!” because we know that would be judgmental. Being a bit more descriptive nurtures a child’s independence and self-efficacy. When the puzzle is completed, we might say, “You really thought hard about where each piece fit in, didn’t you?” Even simply saying “You did it!” to mark an accomplishment may lead a child to realize, “I did do it; I think I’d like to try another puzzle.” Now we’ve planted a seed of enthusiasm, not a need for approval.

Most of us are not teachers and this skill does not come naturally to everyone. I have probably said “Good job!” to my two preschoolers about a hundred times just this past month. But being mindful of the words we use reaps its own rewards when you see a child self-propelled to learn. As a parent who is active in a cooperative preschool, I get lots of practice in the classroom and I have great teachers to emulate. Here are a few tips I have learned along the way:

• Meet a child at eye level.
• Ask open-ended questions.
• Be sincere.
• Support problem-solving.
• Don’t be afraid to simply observe.

Kelly lives in Burlingame and can frequently be seen pounding the pavement with her two preschoolers in tow. A former financial analyst and small-business owner, she serves as Newsletter Editor on the Executive Board of the United Methodist Church Cooperative Nursery School. She has a keen interest in early childhood education and is a strong supporter of the play-based curriculum.

Recommended Reading:

Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn.

Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelson, Ed.D., Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn.

Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World by Jane Nelson, Ed.D., and H. Stephen Glenn.

Love and Limits by Elizabeth Crary Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.