This is a tough area. I have taught these concepts for many years. In doing so, I have gathered that the information I am about to share with you is counter-intuitive to the way most people think. Let me begin by defining my terms to make this easier.
First, let’s talk about praise. When I use that term, I am referring to ‘drive-by’ comments made without much thought. They are often spoken quickly and without much depth. They lack descriptions or specifics about behavior, and they do not give the child substantive patterns to repeat. Praise, as I will use the term, is more of a ‘pat on the back’ and not necessarily repeatable. It does not train the child, nor give them a picture of the types of actions that will allow them to repeat what is right.
On the other hand, encouragement is very different. Encouragement includes training the child in the skills they will need, disciplining their character, and empowering them to have the skills necessary to repeat the actions. The goal is to have the child say to themselves, “I can do this – I know what is expected.”
An example of this is when I was teaching pre-school. A child was asked to clean up the blocks. My response was something like the following, “Wow, this is terrific. You put all of the red blocks with the red picture, and all of the blue blocks with the blue picture. You did it quickly and quietly, and without being asked!” This type of encouragement goes beyond praise and gives the child a recipe for success to use the next time. The child can repeat this action easily.
With praise, as I am using the term, the focus is on the giver of the praise. Their control over the situation is external and behavior is rewarded for completed tasks that are well-done. If children become dependent upon another person’s evaluation, they fail to become autonomous individuals who can evaluate and modify their own behavior.
Encouragement, then, is focusing on the child’s ability to evaluate their progress internally, and allows the parent to recognize effort, improvement, character, etc. Encouragement focuses on the strengths and assets of the child, and on their contributions, teaching intrinsic evaluation.
Positive statements of encouragement are things like, “I like the way you handled that,” or “I appreciate what you did.” This instills a sense of worth and self-accomplishment. It is often most effective when the child has expended a great deal effort in a particular area, when they do not expect to be rewarded, or perhaps don’t even realize what they have accomplished.
When you speak words of praise, are you doing this out of habit? A child can sense when the meaning is not valid, or the statement is made in a perfunctory manner.
Also, is your praise ‘one size fits all’? Children have different needs in the area of encouragement and their response will vary. Watch for signs of their discomfort and modify your voice so that the child you are speaking to will hear your intention.
Let’s look at some other examples:
You’re the fastest one at the track meet., You worked very hard in that race.
You’re such a nice person., You were very thoughtful to help Karen study for her exam.
You’re a great helper., Putting away those boxes made it possible for us to get to lunch on time.
Terrific report!, What do you think made this report better than your last one?
I like your sand castle., You seem excited about your sand castle.
Remember, children will develop the intrinsic ability to evaluate their actions when they have been trained in encouragement. Through encouragement, rather than praise, you will help your child acquire the skills necessary to know how to repeat the pattern of successful behavior.