Beyond Praise: Building Character, Encouraging Positive Behavior, and Increasing Resiliency

Last week I wrote about how praise can feel like indirect criticism. I was inspired to write about this phenomenon after watching a documentary about some young adults who are struggling with college. One of the young men said that praise is the new criticism. Powerful words that encapsulate a lot of the angst and anxiety that our kids are facing as they try to live up to very high expectations.

Yet clearly, as parents we need a way to give feedback to our children. In this article, I’ll outline how to give positive feedback that won’t feel like implied criticism if the praise-worthy action is not repeated in the future. The great news is that not only is it possible to learn a better way than blanket praise, you’ll actually connect more deeply to your children in the process.

Why is praise bad? Part of the problem is that praise, although it may feel good in the moment, has the potential to feel conditional. “Wow, you are such an ace student,” sounds great, but it may make your child feel insecure wondering if he can maintain that standing, and what will happen when he doesn’t. As well, instead of building your child up, generic praise can feel hollow and often is rejected by the recipient. We’ve all had people say something like, “This is fabulous. You are such a great cook!”, and inside completely rejected the compliment. So, praise not only often feels conditional, our children don’t even always accept it as true anyways.

Another problem with praise relates to our motivation for praising. Most parents praise their children to encourage them to develop character, behave appropriately and become resilient, competent adults, amongst other reasons. Because too much praise has a tendency to promote a focus on outward rewards, praise can undermine these very traits that we want to encourage. Often times, to do the right thing involves being able to behave based on our own internal beliefs and strength. Clearly the rampant problem with bullying and bystanders speaks to the fact that many kids are not developing their internal guidance system.

So, what are some ways that you can help your child become internally guided and therefore able to do the right thing without needing outside approval to do so?

Give Descriptive Feedback

Tie the feedback to a value, such as hard –work, persistence, or creativity. Each of these are traits your child can tap into, and don’t feel as conditional as a generic, “You did great!” does.

Tie feedback to goals if that is relevant. If you know your child wanted to score 10 baskets this month, and she did, congratulate her on reaching her goal.

An example of descriptive feedback:

Instead of blanket, general praise, I encourage you to be descriptive, you could say, “Wow. This report is very thorough, neat, well-documented and interesting to read. I especially liked the part where you said, …. I know that you worked hard on this project and put a lot of creativity into it. You earned the great mark you got.” You can sum it all up with a word or two that describes the character trait or value that you see your child has demonstrated. “To do such a thorough report took perseverance and dedication,” is an example of what you could have said.

In this example, your child still hears your acknowledgement for her accomplishment. However, she also hears that you really read the report and noticed the work she put into it. You could add that because she had done so much work and been so creative, she can feel good about her accomplishment even if the teacher happened not to give her a great mark. The report is an accomplishment in and of itself, without needing the teacher’s evaluation to deem it worthy.

I first learned this concept while teaching the renowned How to Talk so Kids will Listen, and Listen so Kids Will Talk. When my children were young and I first started using this technique, I was surprised by their response. I mentioned to one of the kids that it took perseverance to do something. A few weeks later, my son asked me, “What was that word you used to describe me?” He wanted to refer to himself as having that trait, but he hadn’t heard the term enough yet to remember it. I was struck by the hard evidence that he was absolutely taking my words to heart.

You will see huge rewards if you focus on descriptive feedback instead of praise. With a bit of practice, it becomes easy to describe what you see and reflecting back to our children some of the values and traits we see them demonstrating. Your children will build their sense of self from your words. That is powerful stuff indeed, and will help you help your child become the resilient, competent adult you both want him or her to be.

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