How To Talk So Kids Will Listen: Effective Praise

Date May 19, 2008

The Mentorship Approach With Kids & Teens

“You are wonderful!”

“That’s the most amazing project I’ve ever seen!”

“You’re the best assistant division manager in the whole company!”

Are you buying that?

Neither are your kids. They hear exaggerated praise and dismiss it. They hear vague praise and think it sounds hollow.

In chapter 5 of How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk, titled “Praise,” Faber and Mazlish recommend using specific descriptions of children’s behavior and their accomplishments. Specific descriptions are by definition not exaggerated, so they are not easily dismissed. They are not empty or hollow because they are rich in content.

As an example, when four-year-old Bryson shows mom his picture, she doesn’t say, “Wow, honey! It’s beautiful! You’re such a good little artist.” Instead, she describes what she sees. “I see green here, that looks like grass. And that’s a house with a chimney. The sun is bright yellow and you put a smile on it. I see people playing. When I look at this picture I feel happy.” Bryson knows his mother is paying attention because she is describing in detail. His work and effort are being affirmed. When she adds her emotional response to his work, he knows he has connected with her. His effort is recognized clearly and is truly appreciated.

Faber and Mazlish teach an additional powerful technique for giving effective praise that summarizes the description in one or two words. That short summary is an affirmation of a quality that is developing in the child. It is proof that he or she is on a good path towards social and personal responsibility in adulthood. It can help a child undo a negative self-perception and see himself or herself as capable and effective in an area where others have given criticism. It also becomes a touchstone the child can recall when doubts or insecurities arise.

It works like this. Jenny is in the habit of not doing things until reminded. Her second-grade teacher sees it as a pattern and looks for instances where she can give accounts of Jenny not taking care of her responsibilities. At home, mom and dad have fallen into criticizing her, too, asking her, “Why can’t you remember things?” or “What’s it going to take for you to do this without being reminded?” Jenny is developing a self-image of being forgetful and ineffective, and probably helpless.

Jenny’s dad, deciding to apply this approach, looks for an opportunity. It’s Jenny’s chore to help set the table, and one night she starts when mom announces dinner will be in five minutes. She not only puts out plates, silverware, and glasses, she asks her mom what kind of serving utensils to put out. Her dad says, “Jenny, I saw that you started your chore without a reminder tonight. You put out the plates, the silverware, and the glasses. You even put out the serving utensils.” That part is the description. The summary that follows has the power to go deeply into her heart and change how she sees herself. Dad says, “I saw initiative and consideration.”

This technique is very similar to a skill used in professional coaching called acknowledgment. A coach offers a client an acknowledgment by speaking to a quality of strength the client has which he or she can tap to accomplish challenging goals. The coach says, “I know this might be a difficult week with family getting together and old conflicts coming up, but I know you have the wisdom and compassion to stay out of old patterns.” That resonates in the part of the client that is strong and capable and gives confidence to take on the challenge. As parents, we build up those places of strength and confidence in our children when we affirm the qualities we see develop in them.

For a related article on praise and self-esteem, click here to visit Parenting By Strengths.

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