The single best parenting skill you could ever ask for – why descriptive praise is like gold dust!

How do we encourage children to want to do the right thing?

Is it even possible?

Parents want to know how to get their kids on track. Sure, there are lots of methods you’ve tried already.  Ask them, then ask them again.  Present them with an argument that it’s in their best interest to do it.  Offer to pay them.  Eventually, threaten that they can’t go to that party on Saturday . . . even though you actually need that time to get something else done.

The reason I’m calling descriptive praise the single best parenting skill you could ever ask for is that it not only encourages kids to do the right thing, it fosters positive family relationships and builds healthy self-esteem in children.

Here’s how to do it.

The first thing is to retrain ourselves to look for the good things kids are doing right now – catch them being good.  Oh yeah, I hear you say, well I would praise my kids if I could find something to praise them for!  Seriously, there is actually a lot your kids are doing well, you’re just in the habit of looking for it.

I’m guilty of telling my kids off for forgetting to brush their teeth, ignoring that they got up, washed and dressed, packed their bag and put their shoes on.  Four out of five done – I should be shouting Hooray!  So, instead of thinking we’re lowering our standards maybe our expectations are unrealistic?

Should we expect kids to do what we ask, straight away with a Colgate smile?

To put descriptive praise in practice – you need to look really closely at what IS happening.  Check out each of those steps in the right direction.  When the book gets taken out of the school bag, chucked on the table and the face has a look of pure grump say:

I see you got your book out and you’re getting ready to do the homework“.

Make a point of noticing things when your kids are playing happily together with LEGO:

I like the way you made that truck with your brother/sister, that’s nice teamwork

When they read to themselves and reading is something they are improving in: “You’re zooming through those Harry Potter books, what will you choose to read next? I think you’re turning into a bookworm!

Authentic praise like this is more believable.  Kids might like to be told “Good job” while they’re little. Those words will be water off a duck’s back when they compare themselves to others which is what happens when they get older. So be really specific with your praise. Here’s the thing though, the reason we’re doing it isn’t to cynically manipulate our kids.  We’re actually giving them a positive image of themselves through our eyes.

It really helps families lift the mood and have an optimistic outlook when we think like this. It’s important to notice what’s going well. Parents can even mention past successes to help change the mood when behaviour starts spiralling downwards.

Some kids will love being praised like this.  Others will take a while to warm to it.  Maybe they think their parents have turned into aliens as they didn’t used to talk like that!  Take the time to work out which your child likes best.

So here’s the challenge.  Get some descriptive praise into your routine.  When you say “good girl” or “good boy” think about why it was good.  Did it show maturity, bravery, thoughtfulness? Link your praise to the qualities you admire.

If you’re stuck finding a form of words think about the area you would like to develop:  maybe a better attitude to trying new foods, doing guitar practice or organising their belongings?

I always remember a story from a lady who was having a tough time reaching her teen boy.  She had even written some notes saying what he’d done and why she appreciated it. Despite his lukewarm response she was moved when she found the notes stacked in a pile in his bedroom.

Maybe you’ll have a similar story to tell? I’m always keen to hear from parents about epic successes or failures. So if there’s a  story you’d like to share or if you’re stuck coming up with a form of words to use get in touch.


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