No matter how old your children are, your praise and encouragement will help them feel good about themselves. This boosts their self-esteem and confidence. Sometimes rewards can be useful too, especially if you want to encourage good behaviour.
How praise works
Praise is when you tell your child what you like about her or her behaviour. Praise nurtures your child’s self-esteem, confidence and sense of self.
By using praise, you’re showing your child how to think and talk positively about himself. You’re helping your child learn how to recognise when he does well and to pat himself on the back.
What to use praise for
You can praise children of different ages for different things. You might praise a younger child for leaving the park when asked, or for trying to tie her own shoelaces. You can praise teenagers for coming home at an agreed time, or for starting homework without being reminded.
Descriptive praise is when you tell your child exactly what it is that you like. For example, ‘I like the way you’ve found a spot for everything in your room’. This helps your child understand what you mean. It’s also more genuine than non-specific praise like ‘You’re a good boy’.
You can’t give too much praise. But praise can lose its impact if it isn’t specific or if you use it when your child hasn’t done anything. This might teach your child that she doesn’t have to do anything to be praised.
Using praise to change behaviour
Children are more likely to repeat behaviour that earns praise. This means you can use praise to help change difficult behaviour and replace it with desirable behaviour.
The first step is to watch for times when your child behaves the way you want. When you see this or another behaviour you like, immediately get your child’s attention. Then tell your child exactly what you liked.
At first, you can praise every time you see the behaviour. When your child starts doing the behaviour more often, you can praise it less.
If you’re using praise to change behaviour, you can praise effort as well as achievement – for example, ‘It’s great how you used words to ask for that toy’.
Encouragement is praise for effort – for example, ‘You worked hard on that maths homework’.
Praising effort can encourage your child to try hard in the future – it’s very motivating. But you can also use encouragement before and during an activity to help your child do the activity or behaviour. For example, ‘Show me how well you can put your toys away’ or ‘I know you’re nervous about the test, but you’ve studied hard. No matter how it turns out, you’ve done your best’.
Some children, especially those who are less confident, need more encouragement than others. When praise is encouraging and focused on effort, children are more likely to see trying hard as a good thing in itself. They’re also more likely to keep trying and to be optimistic when they face challenges.
A reward is a consequence of good behaviour. It’s a way of saying ‘well done’ after your child has done something good or behaved well. It could be a treat, a surprise or an extra privilege. For example, as a reward for keeping his room tidy, you might let your child choose what’s for dinner.
Rewards can make your praise and encouragement work better. Most behaviour is influenced by the consequences that follow it, so when you praise your child’s behaviour and then reward it, the behaviour is more likely to happen again.
Rewards can work well at first, but it’s best not to overuse them. If you need to use them a lot, it might help to rethink the situation – are there any other strategies that you could try to encourage the behaviour you want? Or is the task or behaviour too hard for your child right now?
Note that bribery and rewards aren’t the same. A bribe is given before the behaviour you want, and a reward is given after. Rewards reinforce good behaviour, but bribes don’t.
Sometimes it’s easier to criticise than it is to compliment. Bad behaviour is often more obvious than good behaviour – for example, you’re more likely to notice when your child is yelling than you are to notice when your child is quietly reading a book. Try to pay attention to the good behaviour too!
Tips for using praise, encouragement and rewards
Help build your child’s self-esteem and encourage good behaviour with these tips:
When you feel good about your child, say so. See if you can give your child some words of encouragement every day. The small things you say can build up over time to have a big effect on your child.
Try to praise more than you criticise. As a guide, try to praise your child six times for every one time you say something negative.
Look for little changes and successes. Rather than waiting until your child has done something perfectly to give a compliment, try to praise any effort or improvement.
Accept that everyone’s different. Praise your child for her unique strengths and encourage her to develop and feel excited about her particular interests. This will help her develop a sense of pride and confidence.
Surprise your child with a reward for good behaviour. For example, ‘Thanks for picking up the toys – let’s go to the park to celebrate’.
Praise effort as well as achievement. Recognise and praise how hard your child is trying – for example, ‘You worked really hard on that essay’ or ‘Thank you for remembering to wash your hand before eating your snack’.
Try to make your praise dependent on your child’s behaviour, rather than your feelings. You might find that the more you look for good behaviour to praise, the more positive you’ll feel (and the more good behaviour you’ll see).
For more ideas and strategies, you might like to read our article on encouraging good behaviour in children.
Watch a demonstration on how to use descriptive praise to encourage good behaviour in your children.