Positive Parenting and the Power of Praise

Writer & blogger, (but mostly a mum), Emma Oliver ponders over the importance of getting it right as a parent when it comes to praise and positivity…

Something Esme (my musing four year old) said recently has bothered me. She told me that a child at school had whispered to her, “I’m not very good at anything.”

When I asked Esme what her response had been, she shrugged and said, “I didn’t say anything Mummy.” Of course she didn’t, for this is beyond a four- year-olds’ emotional and social capacity.

I took a positive angle and said to Esme, “I bet that child is good at something… I bet they’re good at running.”

Indeed, I expect that child is good at lots of things. Though perhaps they just aren’t told enough?

It got me thinking about the importance of praise. Do we as parents instinctively praise our children? Always? The honest answer is probably not. But we really ought to, and here’s why.

The importance of praise is undeniable. Self-confidence, self-esteem, independence, and a general positive outlook on life is forged through praising our children. Not to mention, they thrive on it.

But do we praise our children in the right manner? That may sound odd but if we don’t actually communicate the reason why we’re praising our child, can it mean anything to them? It is so easy only to say “well done” and not explain why you are saying “well done.”

Dr Rachel Johnson, a Clinical Psychologist, whose area of expertise includes positive parenting support, says of praise, “Praise makes it easier for our children to learn and develop. But it is important to be clear on what you are praising. Empty praise is not only meaningless, but can affect a child’s performance and confidence in the long run.”

Being clear is one thing, being honest is another. It’s no good saying, “Good job,” when actually, in reality, it wasn’t that good a job. The last thing we want to do is set our children up for a future fall. Clearly as parents, we have a lot to consider regarding praising our little ones.

Dr Johnson says, “Genuine praise is essential. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it – even young children are surprisingly good at picking up when you’re faking.”

“I see a lot of critical praise at my clinic; where parents try to teach in the same sentence eg ‘Well done – you got dressed all by yourself – next time maybe you can make your bed too?!’ This only invalidates and undermines the positive message.”

“I’d encourage parents to remember that praising effort is just as important as praising success; telling a child well done for trying, is as important as celebrating success.”

As well as the right sort of praise, at the right time, positivity is also very important when raising our children to be happy, confident and independent.

Many believe positivity should begin in the womb. As early as 17 weeks pregnant, it has been documented that a foetus can pick up on positive vibes over negative ones, and that a developing baby carried by a continually stressed woman, can receive the hormone cortisol, resulting in a stressed baby born.

Dr Johnson says, “High cortisol levels in babies and children can have significant effects on development both now and in later life.” Reassuringly, she adds, “However, the negative effects are about continued exposure, not the occasional argument, so expectant women should try not to worry that everything they do during pregnancy will damage their child – if only because, ultimately, it will be counterproductive in reducing their overall stress levels!”

A stressed baby can make for a very unsettled household. I ought to know, both of mine were lactose intolerant and allergic to dairy and screamed round the clock. At times I had to try not to join in. I’d often ask myself why had I been blessed with such naughty babies? But of course my babies weren’t naughty. They had no concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour, and wouldn’t for a long time.
When Sofia first smiled she was nearly 13 weeks old. I smiled back at her, and by doing so, reinforced the positive. Through repetition, babies imitate. And it is the same through toddler/childhood and learning to behave. Which they’re more likely to do, if praised and met with positivity.

It’s simple in theory – babies and children crave attention, and will repeat the behaviour that earns a response, good or bad. If you consistently praise desirable behaviour and ignore undesirable behaviour, they’re more likely to behave as you would like them to. Likewise, if you ignore your little one playing happily, and only give attention when they do something wrong, you encourage them to repeat negative behaviour.

Although reinforcing good behaviour and praising your little one vocally is key, you can also demonstrate praise using affection. For affection is praise in its most fundamental of forms. A cuddle automatically rewards your child, and often speaks louder than words.

A great way to help your little one understand what is right and what is wrong, is to lead by example. I remember my own young toddler refusing to tidy her bricks. A resounding “no!” ensued along with a brick being hurled at me. Eventually she was compliant; we did it together. A sense of achievement was gained, praise and hugs had; and positive behaviour reinforced.

So in theory, it maybe simple. But in reality, how easy is it to remember the tools to tame a toddler or a pre-school child’s behaviour, or even deal with your screaming baby? What if you work as well as bring up your family, not to mention cooking, cleaning etc… How, on a frazzled Friday, can we not lose the plot when our household is driving us to distraction?

And actually, that’s a big part of the answer. What we need to do as parents, is learn to distract our children before the focus shifts to any negative behaviour.

Distraction works with children of all ages, whether it be taking a baby into another room, a toddler to the window to look at the birds, or a pre-schooler over to a new activity. The key thing to remember is that as we distract them, we ought to be saying a firm “no”; setting or reinforcing boundaries. And if they’re older, talking to them when all is calm, pointing out right from wrong.

And if distraction won’t work? When all else failed for my strong-willed pre- schooler, the naughty step technique proved most effective. By removing Esme from the situation where she misbehaved and giving her a time out, professionals advise one minute for each year of the child’s age, she quickly learned right from wrong with minimum fuss.

Of course there are other ways for children to learn good behaviour. Creating a reward chart with your child is a great incentive. I’ve found them particularly useful from age three; if effort is rewarded immediately. However, do be aware of the impact a reward chart may have on your child. It should allow them to see that they are a success, not a failure.

Surprise rewards work well too, but it is not necessarily a trip to the toy shop that has the most impact. It might be something as simple as letting your child help you bake a cake.

It is worth keeping in mind, that if a child is hungry, tired or unwell, (particularly if they’re coming down with something), they may be more assertive than usual. Growth spurts can also be a trigger for challenging behaviour, as can a growing child simply trying to find their place in the wider world.

Keep in mind too, that children won’t always be in control of themselves or know why they’re suddenly prone to emotional outbursts. Indeed, on occasion they may well be equally as shocked as the parent by the furor that ensues from within. Remember when your child suddenly throws tantrum after tantrum, it could be due to physical changes. Hormone surges are said to begin around age five, and can cause an imbalance to a child’s equilibrium.

Esme is nearing five and has recently passed through a period of tears, tantrums and torment. Just in time mind you, for her younger sister to take up the rein and enter into a new challenging phase herself. My response will be the same… (to endeavour) to be consistent, firm and kind. And to remember that they’re just that: phases.

I think overall what I’ve learned in almost five years of parenting, and countless years of nannying beforehand, is that a little extra effort pays dividends. Turning a negative situation to a positive one (wherever possible) can have tremendous effect. Indeed, being a proactive parent, anticipating problems and preventing them developing with the use of distraction, is definitely one answer to a smooth running household.

Dr Johnson says, “Positive parenting clearly comes from giving praise that is said at the time it is warranted, and, with genuine feeling. But sometimes it is simply about a more natural and genuine response; noticing what your child is doing and not praising them at all, but responding with a big smile, saying, ‘You did that all by yourself.’”

I believe the power of praise and positive parenting is inextricably linked to a child’s need for love. The next time your little one does something to get your attention, good or bad, your love is probably what they really want.

And in the case of the child in Esme’s school who voiced she wasn’t very good at anything? As parents, I think we need to recognise not every activity is one that our child will necessarily be good at. We need to encourage our children to be excited about the activities that do interest them, and where possible, help them develop a sense of pride, confidence and build self-esteem. Personally, I also think a child needs to understand that to participate, is every bit as important as to excel.

If we can accomplish all this and praise our children along the way, hopefully the results will be revealed to us when our babies/toddlers/rising five-year-olds grow up, and fingers crossed, flourish into happy, confident and independent beings before our very eyes.

Ten top tips to positive parenting

  1. Make sure your praise is genuine and meaningful.
  2. Praise effort as well as achievement.
  3. Use positivity, praise and hugs to reinforce good behaviour, and do your best to ignore less desirable behaviour.
  4. Use distraction eg when your child is too boisterous, lead them into a quiet activity.
  5. Keep in mind that toddlers will gradually understand how you want them to behave.
  6. Do not laugh at bad behaviour; try to lead by example.
  7. Remember to criticise the action, rather than the child.
  8. Try to pre-empt a negative situation coming and turn it on its head.
  9. If you say or do something you regret, explain that you did not mean it and say you are sorry with a cuddle.
  10. Consistency is key.

• Dr Rachel Johnson is a Clinical Psychologist who works with families and children of all ages with behavioural, emotional and development issues.

For more information go to www.thefamilypsychologist.co.uk
• To catch up with Emma through her blog, where you will find more of her musings, follow LIFE AS IT IS and log on to 1grace1faith.blogspot.co.uk