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USING PRAISE: How to Avoid the Pitfalls

Every parent has heard about how important “praising a child’s good behavior” is. But not all parents know how to effectively use this parenting tool. Here are some of the DOs and DON’Ts when it comes to the use of praise:

1. As an exercise in praise-giving, write down how many times you “praised” and how many times you “disapproved of” your youngster in the last 24 hours. We will call these approvals versus disapprovals. If your approvals don't significantly outnumber your disapprovals, you are molding your youngster in the wrong direction.

2. Before you praise, try to read your youngster's body language to see whether the youngster feels the job is praiseworthy: "Dad, look at my math assignment I did at school today …I got a 'B+'." If he approaches you enthusiastically, displaying his assignment for all to see, this youngster deserves praise that shares his excitement. If he pulls the paper out of his schoolbag and tosses it on the floor, praise may not be in order at this time.

3. Don’t use praise with a hidden agenda. For example, if you tell your daughter that you really like her purple sweater (but you’re saying this because you hate the low-cut blouse she has on), your daughter may see right through your praise and discount it immediately – and to make matters worse, she may not trust future praises that come out of your mouth.

4. Excessive praise will give kids the message that obedience and good behavior are optional. It's better to give your youngster the message that he is doing exactly what you expect, not something out of the ordinary. Kids are programmed to meet your expectations. Sometimes all that is needed for you to break a negative cycle is to expect good behavior. Treat them as if they really are going to choose right. When moms and dads don't expect obedience, they generally don't get it.

5. For quick praises, try "Great job!" or "Way to go!" or "Yesss!" To avoid the "I'm valued by my performance" trap, acknowledge the act and let the youngster conclude the act is praiseworthy. If you praise every other move the youngster makes, she will either get addicted to praise, or wonder why you are so desperate to make her feel good about herself. Be realistic. You don't have to praise, or even acknowledge, things she just does for the joy of it, for her own reasons.

6. Kids with weak self-worth have difficulty giving and receiving compliments. They are so hung up on how they imagine the receiver will take their compliment that they clam up …and they feel so unworthy of any compliment that they shrug off the compliment and ignore the person giving the compliment. If you are like that as a person, learn to give and take a compliment yourself so that you can model this to your youngster.

7. Making-up fake accolades is a ‘no-no’. The youngster will see through them and begin to question even genuine praise.

8. Molding your child’s behavior through praise works well if you have a specific behavior goal that you want to reach (e.g., stopping complaining). Initially, you may feel like you are acknowledging nearly every good behavior your child exhibits (e.g., "I like your positive attitude"). Eventually, as the complaining subsides, the immediate need for praise lessens (of course, a booster shot is needed for relapses) and you move on to molding another behavior.

9. Pay attention to the “when-things-are-not-going-wrong” moments. For example, when the house is quite and everybody is doing exactly what they should be doing, acknowledge their “lack of bad behavior” with praise.

10. Praise the behavior, not the person. Praise like "good boy" risks misinterpretation and is best reserved for training your dog. These labels are too heavy for some kids. ("If I don't do well, does that mean I'm bad?") Better is: "You did a good job cleaning your room." "That's a good decision." The youngster will see that the praise is sincere since you made the effort to be specific – it shows that you're paying attention.

11. Praises lose their punch if you freely hand them out for usual and expected behavior, but when the youngster who habitually has a tantrum finally responds appropriately, that's praiseworthy.

12. Simply acknowledge expected behavior, rather than pouring on praise. Acknowledgment is dispassionate praise that molds a youngster to please himself rather than perform for approval.

13. Teach your youngster to be comfortable giving and receiving compliments. Tell your youngster, "What a strong boy you are" or "How cute you look in those shoes!" Eye and body contact during your delivery reinforces the sincerity of your acknowledgment. Make sure you're sincere. When you hear your kids complimenting one another, compliment yourself for your modeling.

14. Change the delivery of your praises. As you pass by the open door of the cleaner room, say: "Good job!" Show with body language a thumbs-up signal for the youngster who dresses himself. Written praises are great for large families. They show extra care. Private praises help, too. Leave little "nice job" notes on pillows, yellow "post-its" on homework, messages that convey that you noticed and that you are pleased.

15. While appropriately-used praise can mold behavior, it's not the only way to reinforce good behavior. In some ways it's superficial. Praise is an external motivator. The ultimate goal of discipline is self-discipline—inner motivation. For example, you may praise good grades and always motivate your kids by planting the idea that good grades are one ticket to success. But you should always temper your praise with "How do you feel about your report card? We want you to get good grades mainly because it makes you happy." When possible, turn the focus back on the youngster's feelings. You will achieve the best results with praise by setting the conditions that help kids know how and when to praise themselves.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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