In Praise of Specificity

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The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.

–       John Ruskin 

How does praise – the expression of a favorable judgment[i]  – fit with raising a confident child? Is it good or bad? Is there such a thing as too much or too little? My mother, for example, was a child who was never told by her parents that she did anything well. And she recalls wondering what she really excelled in because she never received positive feedback. My Dad, on the other hand, claims that he heard positive feedback all of the time. “Good job” was often heard even when deep down he knew he didn’t deserve it or it wasn’t his best effort. He too recalls wondering what he really excelled in and instead had to figure it out through feedback from peers and teachers. We all have our own habits of speaking to our children that likely include a show of appreciation for them. So how do we use positive remarks to promote a kid’s sense of well-being, self-awareness and competence without taking away their intrinsic motivation and desire to learn?

First, children do need to hear appreciative statements of the ways that they contribute and how the specific actions they take demonstrate skill or kindness. The article last week on competence articulates that it’s critical in order for children to develop a sense of being capable. And children who hear that they are not approved of feel and internalize those negative statements of disapproval and can lose confidence in their abilities. But so often the use of praise and its effectiveness depends on the goal or intention behind our statement of praise. Is the goal an attempt to manipulate current or future behavior? Is a parent trying to control a sibling’s behavior by highlighting the good behavior of the other child in the family? Is a parent trying to teach something? Is a parent trying to boost a child’s self-esteem? Or is a parent trying to celebrate the success of the moment? Because praise inherently contains a judgment, individuals – even the youngest of children – tend to focus on the judgment not on its positive or negative slant.[ii] “A significant amount of research has found that intrinsic motivation does indeed decline as a result of praise,” writes Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards. Children, searching for opportunities to exert control and self determine who they are going to be typically resist and may even be discouraged by such statements as “Good job!” “Nice work” or “You’re great!”

Children can become dependent on praise to validate who they are if they receive heavy doses and no other kinds of reinforcing language. “Their self-control, initiative, creativity and sense of personal responsibility are ultimately undermined.” In addition, when children are “caught being good” and rewarded for it, they may learn that they only need to take responsibility when an adult is watching. They are not internalizing the values and learning the skills to take responsibility for themselves. Confident kids know their strengths but also have the opportunity to learn and practice social and emotional skills so that they are able to take ownership over those behaviors. So what kind of language is most effective in promoting learning, social and emotional skill development and confidence? The Power of Our Words; Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn[iii] offers some helpful guidelines and I’ve added my own take-aways for parents.

  • Use reinforcing language that is specific. “Your idea about outer space really showed careful thought.”
  • Focus on actions, not the person in general. Instead of “You are so good at soccer!”, you could say “I notice you kept control of the ball all the way down the field.”
  • Be genuine and spontaneous. “It’s great to see you riding your bike for the first time this summer!” is more effective than offering up praise to coax a child into exhibiting a particular behavior such as, “Great job riding your bike.” because you bought them a bike and want them to ride it.
  • Show through your words that you have confidence in their choices, abilities and behaviors. Never use praise to manipulate and control behavior. Instead of saying to Lucy, “See how Marcie does a nice job of putting her shoes in her cubby.”, you could say “You remembered to pick up your shoes and put them in the cubby this time. I appreciate that.” Or “I realize it didn’t happen today, but tomorrow at this time, I know you will work to remember to put your shoes in your cubby.”
  • Use “I notice…” instead of “Good job.” After Jeffrey goes to the dentist, you could say “I noticed you were very brave with the dentist this afternoon.”

Since I tend to be a rampant “Good job-er” myself, the best way for me to remember this practice is to remember to replace it with “I notice…” That language introduction will guide you toward more specific language that is focused on actions instead of a statement that forms a judgment of who a child is. When in doubt, ask yourself “Will my statement show genuine appreciation for the actions of my child?” If so, go for it. If not, you may want to reconsider and allow your child the freedom to create their own judgments of how they are doing and who they are becoming.

[iii] Denton, P. (2007). The power of our words; Teacher language that helps children learn. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

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