"Dr. Laura.....I probably say 'Good
Job!" ten times a day....if praise isn't a good idea, what am I supposed
to say to encourage good behavior?!" - Ariana
"What kids do need is unconditional support, love with no strings attached. That’s not just different from praise – it’s the opposite of praise. "Good job!" is conditional. It means we’re offering attention and acknowledgment and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us." -- Alfie Kohn
Last week, I wrote that praise isn't good for kids. So, like Ariana, you may be wondering how else you can give your child positive feedback. After all, you've heard it takes at least 7 positive interactions for every negative interaction to maintain a good relationship. While hugs and smiles go a long way, you're in constant verbal interaction with your child, and your most common phrase may well be "Good job!" Besides, there are things you'd like him to learn about how to be in the world. How else can you guide him?
The short answer is that our children need to be seen and loved, no
matter what. The evaluation inherent is praise is what's problematic.
But that doesn't mean you can't find positive ways to interact with your child, hopefully many of them, all day long. And it doesn't mean you can't help him notice the effect of his choices, so he can make wise ones. Here are some examples.
"Wow! Look how happy your brother is to have a turn with your toy."
Why? We all want to guide our child, and that does involve value judgments on our part. But instead of just explaining things as good and bad, take the time to help your child see his power in the world. This shows him in ways he can easily understand that his actions really do matter. Rather than telling him that he's good when he acts in accordance with a value that's important to you, point out the result. That way he can decide whether to repeat the behavior to get that result -- rather than just to get your praise.
"Yes, that's a good painting!"
"I saw you working hard on that painting. Can you tell me about it?"
Why? Maybe it's just a brown mess to your eyes, but she was experimenting with mixing colors. You're not expecting her to be Van Gogh at four. What you want is for her to enjoy the exploration, the process, the work -- not the product.
"You played better today; you almost scored a goal."
"I love to watch you play!"
Why? it sounds like his playing isn't worth anything unless he scores a goal. We can't say that sports are about fun and teamwork and then push kids to be the one to score the goal. Kids who play sports say the worst part is the ride home in the car when parents inevitably comment on how they can improve their playing. Let the coach play that role. Your role as the parent is to enjoy your child's playing, so that he can enjoy it.
"I'm so proud of you!"
"You must be so proud of yourself!"
Why? Because if he's to take pride in his accomplishments, he needs to be the judge and the source of the pride. You don't want his self-esteem dependent on other people's feedback, even yours.
"You did it!" or "Wow! Look at you up there!"
He needs to know you noticed that he did it, and maybe that you're impressed, if you are. You're mirroring his feelings, not telling him what to feel. Leave the evaluation of whether it's "good" to him.
Does that mean you can't influence your child by telling her that you like what she's doing? Not at all. It's fine to express your own feelings. The danger is when our child gets the message that she's only good enough if she does things our way.
"Big girls help Mommy."
"I love it when you help me like this. Thank you."
Why? You're teaching your child how to have a relationship with another person. She needs to know -- without guilt trips -- that what she does has an effect on the other person, so she can choose her actions. It isn't about evaluating her as a human being.
Remember that non-specific praise backfires.
"You're such an angel today."
"I'm having such a good time being with you today. I love it when we have so much fun together."
Why? Your child knows she isn't a little angel, she's a fallible human being -- and if you forget that, she'll need to show you by acting out in the worst way she can think of. Just too much pressure!
There is one kind of general positive feedback that always works, because it's feedback about you:
"You're a good boy."
"I am so glad I get to be your mom. I love you so much, no matter what!"