According to an article published by the Harvard Business Review, the most successful teams that they studied had a 6:1 ratio of positive to negative comments. I am a part time instructional coach at a year round elementary school and we just started back last week. As a teacher and as a mom, reading this statistic made me stop and reflect on my words.
I am no stranger to praise, yet sometimes I feel like I am. My previous posts, Good Job and Praise the Process, challenge us as parents to be mindful of our praise. Is it really a “good job” if your child climbs up the stairs? Or puts their shoes on? Or gets in the car? For some kids, yes and some kids, no. It depends — which is what makes praise so tricky.
But overall, what is praise? Why do we give it and how do we know how much is enough? How much is too much?
Praise is similar to rewards — see last week’s post — in that they are both types of positive reinforcement. Praise is one form of positive reinforcement. In psychology/science terms, that means it’s the addition of something (the compliment) used to increase the likelihood of the behavior happening again in the future (reinforcement).
Keener turned 3 in May and initially, I was losing my mind. See The Rise of the Threenager for the full madness. Since then, I have had to adapt my parenting to meet his needs and to stay sane. One of those changes has been the role and frequency of praise.
When kids are driving us bananas, we often forget to use praise. We are so focused on correcting their behavior that we find ourselves yelling and giving lots of negative feedback and negative attention. I found myself completely on edge, frustrated and negative towards Keener for May and June. It was as if he couldn’t do anything right in my eyes. My praise to criticism ratio was probably 1:20.
While I am still reflecting on all of the changes I have made since June (one being Rethinking Discipline as Heart Training), I know one has been intentionally increasing the amount of praise I’m giving. At its most basic level, “catching him being good.” And it might have been for incredibly mundane and expected tasks:
- I noticed you closed the door quietly.
- Keener, you waited for a grown up before you opened the front door and that keeps you safe.
- The way you checked on Grace when she fell down was so kind of you. You are a really wonderful big brother.
- Staying seated at the table keeps you safe and shows what wonderful manners you have.
I started to look for what he was doing well and “right” and offering specific praise for those behaviors.
For July and August, I really have been enjoying Keener so much more. In hindsight, I think I was the one that changed. And my change allowed him to change. But if reflecting on my own emotions and language is this hard at 33, no wonder it is no small task for someone who is 3, or 39 months old (my principal likes to remind us to think about a kid’s age in months). The change had to start with me.
Give it a try. Find things to praise about your child, even if/when they are driving you absolutely crazy. By identifying what they are doing right and acknowledging it, we are:
- Identifying for ourselves and our child what they are doing well
- Reinforcing those positive behaviors
- Giving attention for the desired behaviors, not just the negative ones
- Feeling less angry and frustrated which gives a new clarity to identify the real problem areas
A word of caution: don’t overpraise, and try to frame the praise you give in specific terms. With most other things in life, moderation is key. Try reinforcing behaviors that you definitely want to see continue as opposed to praising attributes (I love your pretty shirt). For example, I want the kids to take their shoes off right when they walk in the house and put them in a specific basket. When I see them do it, I immediately offer the following praise: I noticed you both remembered to take your shoes off and put them away. You both are so responsible! You will know exactly where your shoes are next time it is time to go.
In the beginning of summer, I was being too hard on Keener and forgetting to give him the praise and verbal affirmation he needed for the things he was doing well. There is no time like the present to make a change. Let your child know how great they are starting right now, or when they wake up. In fact, what a wonderful way to wake up — being told you are doing something well.