First of all, who doesn’t say “good job!” to their kids? It’s a catch-all sort of praise that you can easily blurt out while you’re also skimming the news, chopping vegetables or peeking out of the bathroom to watch your child do some sort of jumpy twirly move that he’s obviously very proud of. Yet, praise can do so much more than prove that you’re watching what your child does. How?
Use Descriptive Praise
Rather than evaluating our children and defining their whole worth around one task or action, why not describe the positive behavior and encourage them? This is called descriptive praise.
A comparison of evaluative and descriptive praise helps clarify:
|Evaluative Praise||Descriptive Praise|
|“Good boy!”||“Thank you for helping me. We finished cleaning quickly between the two of us.”|
|“What a fantastic drawing!”||“You worked very hard on that drawing. I like the colors you picked.”|
|“Good job!”||“Wow, I didn’t know you could hop on one foot. That takes a lot of balance!”|
In the left hand column, evaluative praise is used. Here, you can see how the words determine whether the child has done something “good” or “bad.” There is judgement in these phrases. Especially with “good girl!” and “good boy!”, the child as a whole is evaluated for one single action.
In the right-hand column, the praise is much longer and describes the actions completed. Positive aspects are mentioned in a descriptive way. This is helpful for the child because they can recognize the benefits of their work. In the first example of descriptive praise, the adult points out that because they helped, a task was completed more quickly. In the second example, because the child worked hard, they were able to create a beautiful picture. Adults can even expose children to a greater vocabulary by using words like “balance” in their praise.
In the Montessori classroom, external rewards, including excessive praise, are discouraged. This is because the child should become internally motivated, recognizing the benefits and innate goodness of the work they do. This doesn’t happen automatically. Parents and teachers must guide the process and help the child learn to see the importance of each task performed in the classroom and at home, from chores to art, to math.
However, this goes against what society has preached for years. Somewhere along the way, parents and teachers began to believe that praise was very important, necessary even, to develop self-esteem. In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers published reports showing that children could perform much better academically if they had greater self-esteem. And praise was the way to get there. Many parents believe this today…
Isn’t Praise Important for Self-Esteem?
Children need to be built up and become confident in themselves. It is the work of the parents and the community surrounding the child to help them develop a healthy self-esteem. As indicated by Dr. Gwen Dewar, research shows that the youngest children, below the age of two, thrive on lots of praise and should be encouraged to become independent. But, after this point, praise becomes more difficult for parents to manage effectively.
Older children are much more suspect to the motivations of adults dishing out praise. They may wonder if the adult is trying to manipulate them. Additionally, praise for one completed task creates pressure for the child to maintain an equally excellent performance, causing them to choose easier tasks rather than challenging ones.
Some research even shows that excessive evaluative praise can result in narcissism. As opposed to encouraging a healthy self-esteem, they come to believe they are better than everyone else.
The Key is How We Praise
While evaluative praise has been shown to have negative effects, descriptive praise has not. Descriptive praise that focuses on traits children have the power to change (such as their effort, choice in strategy and attitude) has a positive impact. Children are more likely to take on challenging tasks and feel motivated to do so. Additionally, children grow to have a healthy sense of their abilities says Lauren Lowry, Speech Language Pathologist.
When we praise children for things that they don’t have control over such as their intelligence or being “good” (which is usually determined by an adult and is quite arbitrary), they lose motivation and feel helpless when a project or activity doesn’t turn out just so.
So, in order to help our children develop healthy self-esteems and learn to recognize the benefits of their efforts, use descriptive praise. Although it may take a bit more effort on our part, the results are worth it.
As you start using descriptive praise, be patient, it takes some practice. Read some more examples of descriptive praise and post them on your refrigerator. Soon enough you’ll be an expert.
How do you praise your child?