parent by design: 

how to praise your child effectively

Praise is a powerful weapon to have in your parental armoury. 

Used correctly, praise can motivate your child to develop the resources they need to thrive.

But as the song goes, 'It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it, and that's what gets results'.

why praise?

Praise is a brilliant little way to give your kids positive feedback, let them know they are on the right track, and make them feel good about themselves too.

It is an essential parenting tool, but used in the wrong way, it can do more harm than good. 

A common mistake is to overpraise in an attempt to build self-esteem, unfortunately praise dished out for any old 'achievement' has the exact opposite effect.

But before we show you how to praise your kids properly, you need to know what to praise them for.

what we praise our kids for

Through praise our objective is to help our kids build genuine self-esteem, self-belief, and confidence in their ability.

How do we do that?

Thankfully, this research has already been done for us.

We use the VIA Institute's 24 Character Strengths as our praise framework. 

Each of us possesses these 24 strengths and we use them all to greater or lesser degrees.

Research shows that people who know and use their character strengths are happier, healthier, less stressed, have better relationships, are more confident, and feel more fulfilled. 

An impressive list of benefits which we will happily accept, however we praise using character strengths for a different reason.

Character strengths are the building blocks of identity, it is your unique blend of these strengths that helps to make you, you.

And, it's precisely because they reflect our personal identity that we use them as the framework to praise our kids.

Here's why.

strengths and identity

Identity: what you believe about yourself and what you are capable of, is what ultimately drives your behaviour. (see Iceberg diagram)

For example, if you believe that you are someone who PERSEVERES, you probably work hard, are good at overcoming obstacles, and you will usually finish what you start. 

This behaviour provides you with evidence to support the belief that you are someone who PERSEVERES. And, the more evidence you have the stronger your belief.

This last bit is key and is where you can really help. 

For your kids to have a genuine, strong belief in themselves and their ability, that belief needs to be backed up by evidence. 

Begin praising your child using their strengths, and you help them to collect the evidence that shapes their identity.

how to praise

We've taken our praising method from the brilliant Dr. Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, ABPP.

Here is a great video of him explaining how to use praise to help kids modify their behaviour. 

Below we show you an example of how we use Dr. Kazdin's praise method to praise for character strengths:

  • 1
    "Well done!  You really showed your strength of PERSEVERANCE there."
  • 2
    "I'm impressed, you really stuck with it until you finished even though it was a really tricky problem to solve."
  • 3
    "Great work... HIGH FIVE!"

In more detail:

  • 1
    Praise enthusiastically- mention the CHARACTER STRENGTH they have shown.
  • 2
    SPECIFICALLY tell them what the praise is for. Important: praise only for EFFORT (how they did it) or PROCESS (what they did) and NOT the result they got.
  • 3
    Sign off enthusiastically and enhance the message with a nonverbal flourish.

how to praise: some do's

Dr. Kazdin offers some advice on praising more effectively:

  • 1
    Praise as close to the event happening as possible, the uplifting effects of praise have a short half-life.
  • 2
    Be enthusiastic, smile, use your voice tone and gestures to indicate they've done a great job, this tells your child you mean what you say.
  • 3
    The nonverbal ending helps to emphasise the message: high five, pat/ kiss on the head, kiss, hug, whatever is comfortable and appropriate.

how to praise: some don'ts

Dr. Kazdin also offers some advice on what not to do:

  • 1
    Reserve this type of praise for things that matter, your child will become immune to your efforts if you start praising them for the sake of it.
  • 2
    Don't praise the person "You are a GOOD BOY/ GIRL." - this can make your child feel that they are only "good", when they do something you praise them for.  
  • 3
    Don't link your LOVE or HAPPINESS to the praise: "Well done, Daddy loves you so much for doing this and it makes me very HAPPY ." - you love your child unconditionally, not because of the things they do and you risk training your child to do things to please you.  
  • 4
    No caveats at the end: "Well done, for doing X... why can't you always be like that?" - this is happiness this is a no-no, it negates the praise you've just given.

We would add:

  • 1
    Never say that your child is"amazing", "beautiful", "clever", or"talented", whilst praising. You're their parent and of course you think this, however these traits are highly subjective and build false self-esteem. 
  • 2
    Never praise the outcome, results are not controllable, but effort and process are. Praise contingent upon a successful outcome is a surefire way to raise a lifelong people-pleaser.

additional benefits of praising this way

Dr. Kazdin's praise method is a brilliant tool and can be used to modify any aspect of your child's behaviour. 

When I combined his method with praising character strengths I noticed some additional benefits.

Previously my default parenting mode was set to: parenting by correcting my kids' mistakes- which made me feel like Mr Grumpy, and wasn't terribly effective (the kids weren't too enamoured with it either, funnily enough!).

Instead, looking for what my kids were doing right instead of wrong changed the whole family dynamic:

  • I'm more positive because I'm looking for the positive
  • The kids are more positive in response to me
  • The kids begin to see themselves more positively- through the lens of their strengths 
  • The home atmosphere feels more positive

I urge you to give it a try.

Take a different strength each day and look for the good in your child.

extra info

If you haven't already, we strongly recommend that you and your child take the free VIA CHARACTER STRENGTH survey. It will give you the framework, not only to praise well, but also to be a more positive parent in general. 

We also highly recommend taking Dr. Kazdin's course Everyday Parenting: The ABCs of Child Rearing, it is excellent as is his The Kazdin Method® for resolving almost any parenting issue.

parent by design

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