Praising Your Child | How to Say it Right Without Judging?

As part of our Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) series, Gordon Parenting provides Healthy Matters exclusive tips and advice on parenting.
 
It is said that no idea is more popularly accepted in parent-child relations than the thought that kids should be praised for “good” behavior. To many parents it is tantamount to heresy to questions this principle. We spoke to Odette Umali from Gordon Parenting about what can go wrong with praising children and what would be the alternative.
 
 

First of all, can you define praise? And is there a wrong way to praise?

As commonly used and believed, praise is a form of reward. You can hear parents say “you are such a good boy,” when a boy does good behaviour like cleaning up the room or picking up his clothes from the floor. To be effective as a reward, praises must be felt by the child as a reward. This becomes difficult when praise use labels and generalizations that is difficult for children to fully appreciate and relate to like: you did a good job, you are so smart, you are so cool, you look sharp. The danger here is that praises (and other rewards) are used by parents to shape the child’s behavior and feeling.
 
Consider the following sample dialogue where praise becomes insincere and manipulative.
  • Parent: “You’re getting to be such a strong swimmer.”
  • Child: “I’m not half as good as Charlie. I finished 4th.”
  • Parent: “Honey, you played a good race.”
  • Child: “I did not, I feel horrible. I should’ve won.”
 
 

What is the alternative to praise?

Commonly said praises are said in the form of a “You Message” which contains the word you and is oriented to the child. It tends to be judgmental and evaluative and conveys the viewpoint of the parent. Even well intentioned you messages can leave the child with uneasy and incongruent feelings.
 
In Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.), we offer Positive I-Message as the alternative to the common praise.
Instead of saying . . . (You Message)Try . . . (Positive I-Message)
“You are such a good boy!”“I feel happy that you picked up the clothes from the floor and kept your room organized.”
“You played a good race.”“I am glad you improved your time in today’s race. I see you pushed yourself extra hard.”
“You are so smart.” “You got an A in math! That really makes me feel proud of your accomplishment.”
 
Positive I-messages avoid labels and focus on the behavior (what can be observed) and its effect on the parent. Positive I-Messages contain no judgment and express the genuine feeling of the parent.
 
Let me end by sharing with you the 5 reasons why we should stop saying “Good job!” by Alfie Kohn:
1. It is manipulative.
2. It creates kids who are praise junkies.
3. It steals a child’s pleasure to take delight in her own accomplishment.
4. The child will lose interest due to “too much reward/praise”.
5. Too much and immediate praise can reduce achievement.
 
Positive I-Messages reinforce the child’s acceptable behavior and help them develop self-motivation.
 
 
Odette Umali is the Founder of Gordon Parenting in Hong Kong and Macau. She conducts P.E.T. courses, certifies instructors, has developed Parent Education programs in international schools and pre-schools, worked extensively with NGOs and spearheaded the effort to translate training materials into Traditional Chinese (Cantonese). P.E.T. is accredited by the Macau School Board as a course in the School of Continuing Studies of Macau University of Science and Technology. Odette’s articles have appeared in the SCMP and Sing Tao Daily. She has a degree in Psychology and Marketing and completed her Executive MBA from Chinese University of Hong Kong. She also holds a diploma in Adult Training and Education from Hong Kong University.
This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and not sponsored. It is informative only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.