Reinforce the behaviour you want to see more of – encourage, praise and reward it
It’s important for a child to feel that their parents are proud of him or her. Praise and showing appreciation are effective ways to reinforce the kind of behaviour you want to see more of in your child. Praise also helps a child to develop a positive self-image. When a parent praises their child and sets an example of appreciation, children are more likely to give praise and show appreciation to others. This supports your child’s friendship skills. It’s also important for a child to feel that they are accepted and loved as they are. The child must not feel that they have to work hard and achieve things to deserve their parent’s care and love.
Notice good behaviour, praise it and show your appreciation
When a parent praises or otherwise shows their appreciation of their child’s behaviour, it motivates the child to develop this particular skill. However, praise and showing appreciation will not have an immediate effect; it takes time, consistency and perseverance to internalise a behaviour. That’s why it’s important to praise the desired behaviour and show your appreciation of it for a long time. If your child hasn’t yet mastered a desired skill, it’s important to praise them for trying. Praising a child is about noticing the good things, and this requires positive language in everyday situations.
Praise will not spoil the child
In Finnish culture, giving positive feedback is not necessarily something we are used to. “If you praise a child, he or she will become overly proud” is a phrase many parents have heard in their own childhood. However, according to current thinking, praise will not spoil the child. In contrast, children deprived of a parent’s positive attention may later adopt a veneer of arrogance to protect themselves. Positive attention helps the child’s self-esteem to grow in such a way that the child doesn’t need to feel inferior or superior to others.
It can be difficult as a parent to say things you didn’t hear as a child or do things your parents didn’t do because it may feel foreign to you. That’s understandable. However, you can practise praising and encouraging your child. It will become more natural when you see the impact it has on your child’s behaviour and growing confidence.
Praising a child for trying
Praising your child for trying is more effective in reinforcing his or her behaviour than telling them they’re intelligent or skilled at something. Studies have shown that children who are praised for trying learn to persevere and to take pleasure in what they’re doing. You can praise your child, for example, by saying: “Well done for continuing to try and solve a difficult puzzle like this.” In contrast, children who are praised for their qualities or achievements – for example, “you’re so clever for completing this puzzle” – may learn to avoid new challenges. They learn to fear that not knowing how to do something will expose them as failures, so they prefer to do something they already know how to do.
Praising a child is a small and easy everyday act that makes a big difference. Often parents put off praising their child until he or she has clearly achieved something. But it’s not worth saving your praise for excellence; instead, show your appreciation whenever your child keeps trying. It’s good to remember that your child is still learning and it can be a long way to success. You also shouldn’t stop praising your child once they’ve mastered the desired skills. You should show your appreciation for the good things every day.
Children with a challenging temperament can be more difficult to praise. Sometimes it may be the case that the child has already adopted a negative self-image and seeks attention that reinforces this concept. In this case, the parent should praise them even more, for smaller things and for longer. The child will probably resist the praise at first. But it pays to be persistent and keep praising the child despite their resistance. Please note, however, that the praise must be genuine, because children can sense insincerity and the praise and appreciation will not have the desired effect.
How to praise your child
- Praise your child for a specific action or behaviour, preferably immediately. It’s best to give praise immediately, rather than the next day, for example.
- Make sure to praise the very activity you want to see your child doing. “Nice job collecting all the crayons.”
- Give them positive attention and support, hug, touch and kiss them and smile.
- It’s most effective when the child can see their parent’s appreciation and happiness on their face and in their gestures. “Wow, you did a great job brushing your teeth all by yourself: you deserve a round of applause for that.” “Well done.” “I’m proud of you for trying so hard and not giving up.”
For the next two days, pay attention to everything your child does well. Also notice the little things, such as your child playing nicely for a while or sharing their toys with or lending them to others. Smile at your child and stroke, hug and praise them. Tell your child exactly what it was about their actions or behaviour that delighted you.
Think of two things you hope to see more of in your child’s behaviour. They can be about getting dressed, cleaning up, waiting for their turn or sharing when playing. Then, for a week, make it your mission to praise them every time you notice them doing something relating to that particular thing, even if it’s something very small. At the end of the week, see if there has been any progress in how the child acts or behaves.
Rewarding your child
Material rewards are a good way to motivate children to learn new ways of behaving or doing things. You should praise, admire and show appreciation for your child every day, while material rewards should be used infrequently and judiciously. Constant material rewards may lead the child to expect only material gifts for their achievements, and verbal praise may lose its meaning in their eyes.
Rewards can be used unexpectedly when the child does something desirable. For example, you could say: “I noticed how nicely you shared toys with your friend today. To celebrate, today you get to choose a board game the whole family can play together.” This is suitable for children under 7 years old when they behave in the desired way quite frequently.
Webster-Stratton, C. (2006). The Incredible Years: A Trouble-Shooting Guide for Parents of Children Aged 2–8 Years. Publisher: The Incredible Years.
Triple P – Positive Parenting Program.