This is one in a series of guest posts by other bloggers. Read to the end for a longer biographical note on today's guest blogger, Amy Phoenix from Presence Parenting. Amy brings welcome clarity to the confusion surrounding different types of praise.
Guest post by Amy Phoenix from Presence Parenting
A few years ago a close friend sent me an email titled "Why we don't say good job." Intrigued, I opened it to find an explanation of how praise can hurt kids. Although I could sense truth in the message, I felt a little bewildered. Was I supposed to just stop praising my children? What would I do with the enthusiasm and love I felt for them? What words would I use? I stayed sort of stuck in those questions for awhile.
A couple of years later I trained to become a Parent Talk facilitator with Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman, who blog at Uncommon Parenting. Thomas and Chick are also fans of Alfie Kohn, father and author of the book Unconditional Parenting — the same book my friend highlighted when she warned me of the potential downside of praising kids.
My questions were finally answered. One of the sessions in Parent Talk focuses specifically on how praise and criticism relate to self-esteem, clearly explaining how praise itself is not bad — it's much more about how and why we praise that leads to either potential problems or possibilities.
A child's self-esteem is essentially their sense of self, how they view and relate to themselves. It follows that self-esteem influences how people view and relate to others and the world around them. Since we're all in relationship with each other and our kids look to us and others in their surroundings for an example, the way we communicate with them absolutely does contribute to their self-esteem.
So, is it possible to use praise in ways that contribute to a healthy sense of self? Yes.
Except even the word "use" may point to the most important foundation for anything we do as parents. If we use a tactic as parents to get a result, we may be manipulating our children to get said result. This creates a sticky situation because it may feel frustrating when we don't get the results we want. In the case of praise, it can also lead to a child being dependent on others to praise them so they can feel or do something good. The child's sense of self is affirmed or denied by those around him.
Not so good.
How can we remedy this? Explore and refine our intentions. If you find yourself trying to pour on the praise to get a result, simply notice that tendency and then choose how you really want to communicate. Becoming aware of how praise affects children (and adults) may also help.
Evaluative praise is the type that's come to get a "bad" rap, for good reason. Evaluative praise judges the child, the child's efforts, personality, way of being, or what the child creates. Essentially, evaluative praise puts our judgment on the child.
Examples of evaluative praise may include:
- That's beautiful.
- You did great in school this term.
- Wonderful work on the yard.
- Great job putting your toys away.
If you are now realizing that evaluative praise is a part of the communication you regularly have with your child, don't fret. There are alternatives that allow for a deeper connection between you and your child as well as allow your child to evaluate himself.
Descriptive praise allows you to talk about what you observe with your child without judgment, and leave evaluation up to her. This can include the situation you are witnessing, actions, and accomplishments — basically, whatever you notice. By describing what you observe without evaluation, you affirm what the child is doing or has done while the child gets to decide how she thinks and feels.
Examples of descriptive praise may include:
- When you were finished, you put the papers in the trash.
- You used many bright colors and colored back and forth.
- You picked up your clothes off of the floor.
- I noticed the dishes are clean and stacked in the drying rack.
- You stopped before hitting your sister when you felt angry.
- The bikes are all parked in the garage with plenty of space for the van.
The benefits of descriptive praise are limitless, really. Do you think it's more important what a kid hears or what they say to themselves in their heads? Obviously one's self-talk is most important and can be affected by others. Descriptive praise allows your child to develop positive self-talk by noticing what she does and choosing thoughts about it.
This may look like a child saying on the inside, "Yeah, I cleaned up after myself. I can keep things neat," or "I like my picture. It's pretty." The statements the child says to herself stay with her and cultivate her sense of self. Coupled with your enthusiasm, observation, and appreciation, her self-evaluation leads to a healthy sense of self. She realizes she is of value in various ways through self-awareness.
Appreciative praise is your opportunity to pour out the love you have for your child. Honesty is central to praise, and heartfelt appreciation is integral to any healthy relationship. In expressing appreciative praise, we tell our child thank you while we share how their actions impact our lives. The child naturally experiences how he affects those around him in positive ways. Beware of using this type of praise to get a result; let it come from the heart, and you will see how it cultivates a deeper sense of connection between you and your child.
Examples of appreciative praise may include:
- I noticed the toys were put away, and we can play in the clear space on the floor. Thank you!
- I appreciate that you did the dishes even though you didn't want to. It helps when everyone does their part around the house.
- Thank you for touching me gently.
- Thank you so much for helping with the groceries. My body is sore, and it was nice to lift less this time.
- Thank you for lowering your voice. My ears appreciate the lower volume.
- I am so grateful you are in my life. Your smile reminds me of what's really important.
To me, praise equals appreciation. It is going deeply into how grateful you are for the presence of another and sharing it with them. As you transition from evaluative praise, feel free to blend descriptive and appreciative praise together, remembering that it's much less about a definition of praise and much more about deepening the communication and connection you have in your relationships.
Here are a few quick steps to get started:
- Notice how you use evaluative praise with your child and partner. Make a list for a week if you'd like, noting a few things before bedtime each day.
- Choose to stop evaluating and start experimenting with descriptive praise at least three times each day, increasing as you go along.
- Soak up the times you really appreciate your family members. Take it in with all of your senses. Share what you experience.
- Combine descriptive and appreciative praise when it feels right.
- Notice how those around you (and possibly you, too) start to look to others less for validation of their worth and begin to positively evaluate themselves.
- Enjoy the process!
What kinds of praise come most easily to you at this point? How has praise affected your own self-esteem?
Amy Phoenix is a gentle yet direct momma of five, parent educator, and meditation facilitator dedicated to liberating anything that gets in the way of experiencing the peace of the present. She provides resources to relax into life and parenting at presenceparenting.com.