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What To Say Instead of Praising

"Dr. Laura.....I probably say 'Good Job!" ten times a day....if that isn't a good idea, what am I supposed to say to encourage good behavior?!" - Ariana

In my last post, I wrote that praise as we usually give it isn't good for kids. So, like Ariana, you may be wondering how else you can give your child positive feedback.

After all, you may have heard that 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 feel seen and accepted and encouraged, no matter what. The evaluation inherent is praise is what's problematic. No one likes to feel constantly judged. It has a dampening effect on confidence, initiative, and simply being able to take pride in one's accomplishments.

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 that he can make wise ones. 

In fact, your positive encouragement can be a super-power for your child. To retrain yourself, just write down a few phrases that you want to start using, and try them out. Don't be surprised if you see your child become more thoughtful, more self-motivated, and happier.

Here are some examples of what you can say instead of conventional praise, and why.

Instead of:
"Good sharing!"
"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 good feeling inside -- rather than just to get praise from outside.

Instead of:
"What an incredible painting!"
"I saw you working hard on that painting. Can you tell me about it?"

Why? 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 -- and to go on to do more painting. Research shows that when we evaluate, children worry that their next painting won't be as good, so they stop trying.

Aren't there value judgments inherent in your feedback? Yes. In this case what we're noticing is "hard work." But I don't think it's a problem to focus positive attention on what we value. After all, we're guiding our child all day, every day in accordance with our values. What's important is to notice what values you're actually promoting with your feedback. For instance,

Instead of:
"You played better today; you almost scored a goal."
"I love to watch you play!"

Why? The first version sounds like her playing isn't worth anything unless she 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. Here's an eye-opener: 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 she can find joy in it.

Instead of:
"You're so smart!" 
"You just kept trying, and you figured it out!"

Why? Because kids who are told they're smart think that if they have to work at something, it means they aren't so smart after all. You want him to understand that the brain is like a muscle that that he can grow. Once he realizes that if he keeps working at something, he can figure it out, he has the confidence to learn and master anything. 

Instead of:
"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.

Instead of:
"Good job!"
"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. But you're mirroring his excitement, 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?  Of course not! Children need to know that their contributions are valued. The danger is when our child gets the message that she's only good enough if she does things our way.

Instead of:
"Big girls help Mommy."
"When you help me like this, we get done so quickly--I love it! 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.

Instead of:
"You're such an angel today."
"I'm having such a good time singing 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! Instead, be specific about what you like, so she can see that yes, she really is doing this thing you admire, and if she wants to, she can choose to do it again. 

There is one kind of general positive feedback that always works, because it's feedback about you:

Instead of:
"You're a good boy."
"I am so happy I get to be your mom. I love you so much, no matter what!"

Telling a child they're "good" evaluates conditionally. But worse, how does the child know what to do to try to "be a "good boy" again in the future? It's so global, and applied to all kinds of different behavior.  But your delight in your child, your unconditional attention and acknowledgment and approval, just for being who they are -- that's not about something they're doing but about something you feel for them that they never have to perform to get. That's something every child needs to hear often.

As Alfie Kohn says, 

"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."

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