Encouragement vs. Praise

One basic skill I teach all the parents I work with is to stop praising their kids. Yes, we need to halt the “good job’s”, “that’s pretty” and “I like it’s”. Praise teaches children to do good things because of the nice words they receive from others. The motivation is external. It praises the outcome or product of the child’s behavior. 

However, when we stop one behavior, we need to replace it with another. In this case I teach parents to replace praise with encouragement. Encouragement teaches children to do good things because they feel good about it. The motivation is internal. The encouragement is focused on the process of performing the behavior. In order to be encouraging, the individual providing the encouragement must possess a belief in the child. Trust, confidence, and acceptance must be conveyed in your voice, facial expression, and body language.

1. Progress

Progress is extremely important. Children need to be encouraged when they show growth and improvements. Watch for signs of positive change- big or small and comment on them. This will give children hope that even bigger gains are possible.

  • Last week you couldn’t hit the ball and today you hit it three times.
  • Your spelling grade went from a C to a B. 
  • The last time your brother hit you, you hit him back. Today you controlled your anger by breathing.

2. Effort

Always encourage children’s effort. As a child, my dad was never impressed by my straight A grades and was instead more concerned about the numerical effort scores given by the teachers. Encourage children to try things- especially things they might not succeed in at first. Children learn through experience and are frequently afraid to try things they where they might make a mistake or fail. They need your confidence to help them take a risk.

  • You thought you couldn’t do the math problem, but you tried anyway.
  • You’re really trying hard to learn to tie your shoes.
  • You asked me to get the book for you and you figured it out yourself.
  • You didn’t get the lion drawing exactly the way you wanted it and you sure tried hard.

3. Independence

Never do anything for children that they can do for themselves. Always convey to children that you have confidence in their abilities to do tasks on their own, make their own decisions, and creatively solve their own problems. If they ask for assistance, work as a team to find a solution. Avoid solving the problem for them.

  • You would like me to choose a color to paint with and I think you can decide for yourself.
  • When you are playing, the toy can be anything you imagine it to be.
  • It looks like you are struggling with dressing the doll. Let’s figure out how to do it together.

4. Model the Courage to be Imperfect

Sometimes the most encouraging remark an adult can make to a child is acknowledging they were wrong. By modeling the courage to be imperfect, the adult is sending the powerful message that it is ok to make mistakes. You don’t have to be right all the time. 

  • Oops! I said left when I meant right.
  • I got the wrong color. I picked up green when I wanted blue.
  • I’m sorry. I was wrong about how to do your math problem. I will do it differently from now on.
  • I’m not sure how to play that game. Let’s read the rules and figure it out together.

5. Contributions

It is possible to point out some useful act or contribution in every child. Even a comment about something small and insignificant to us may have great important to a child. When you point out assets, focus on the child’s accomplishment and pride. 

  • You really know a lot about dinosaurs. They are very important to you.
  • Thank you for passing the salt. It was extremely helpful.
  • You want to show me how proud you are of your picture.
  • You feel good knowing a lot about history.

Encouraging and building intrinsic motivation in children, rather than pleasing others, builds their confidence and abilities. They learn that they can do things to feel proud. The successful use of encouragement requires adult attitudes of respect, interest in the child’s point of view, and a desire to provide opportunities for children to develop life skills that will lead to self-confidence and independence from the negative opinions of others.

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