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  • Michael Philp

Praise versus Descriptive Praise for Children

You may have seen the viral video from Simon Sinek discussing the "millennial question", and what has been bluntly described as 'what is wrong with kids these days'. If you haven't seen it, it's well worth watching as discusses a variety of issues, including the impact of technology on connecting with others. However, what is interesting is his discussion of 'failed parenting' which he describes as over emphasising praise in order to build up the child's self-esteem. This leads us to discuss the difference between praise and "descriptive praise"

Praise versus Descriptive Praise

We all want to encourage our children and reward them for their efforts, and as a result our language tends to be filled with words and phrases like "wow, you're amazing", "that was wonderful" or "you're being so good". While it sounds like we are trying to be highly supportive of our children, it can backfire in that our children start to recognise that the praise they receive at home is not reciprocated in the wider community, or they see through what the their parents are saying and begin to doubt their own ability. Noël Janis-Norton describes descriptive praise in her book "Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting" as noticing specific examples of what your child is doing that is the desired behaviour and emphasising these behaviours to the child. As an example, perhaps you notice that your children are playing together and you want to encourage this behaviour (rather than them squabbling) and you say something like "you guys are playing great, well done". It seems on the surface that you are trying to catch your children being good and provide them with praise. However, the feedback to the children is too vague and the children can not identify with what it is they are doing that is "great". Alternatively, you could tell your children what it is that you are happy with, for example "I like the way that you two are taking turns with the toys and sharing". This descriptive praise gives your children feedback on what it is about their play that you are happy with. As a result, they are more likely to continue to demonstrate this behaviour, and, as Janis-Norton suggests, the children over time take ownership of this behaviour are more likely to continue to display good behaviour because "it feels right".

The benefits of descriptive praise

Descriptive praise is a useful tool in the toolbag of parenting strategies to help encourage children to display more appropriate behaviours and comply with their parents' requests. You can use descriptive praise to encourage compliance with requests, cooperative play with their siblings or friends, or persevering with a difficult task. The end result of descriptive praise is to remove the bargaining/yelling/threatening and general frustration we can experience as parents, and replace it with our children demonstrating their own initiative to make good choices. For example, rather than feeling like you say the same thing every night after dinner - put your plate away! - , you can try reframing what you say to "I noticed that you put your plate away after I asked you to, and I only had to say it once" and eventually progressing to "you put your plate away without me asking, that's very helpful".

Descriptive praise can also take away some of the debating that can occur with some children. Some children will debate with their parents about everything (sometimes as a way to avoid doing a task), even praise, which can see a compliment thrown back at the parent's face. However, as descriptive praise is factual, it is a lot harder to debate or reject. For example, the phrase "you're doing well with your maths homework" can be rejected with "no I'm not, I'm stupid, I got a wrong answer". However, the phrase "I can see you are taking time to work out your answers" is factual and focuses on what the parent wants from their child (take time, work it out, persevere), and is harder to reject.

Descriptive praise also encourages parents to parent "mindfully", that is to be present and observing our children, so that we can provide the right description at the right time. Parenting mindfully also means that parents are aware of their own behaviours and emotional state, as well as thinking about what you are going to say. It might also mean putting limits on our own behaviours, for example delaying looking on Facebook until after the children have gone to bed.

A tool for the toolbag

Descriptive praise on it's own may not be enough to address all the issues that may be occurring in your household, and I would like you to see it as a tool in the toolbag of parenting strategies that you can use with other strategies that I will discuss in future blogs. In the meantime, I encourage you to try using descriptive praise and to persevere with it for at least a few weeks, as it can feel as a un-natural way of speaking.

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