Friday, February 12, 2010

day forty-four: praise older children sincerely without over-praising

“If you're sincere, praise is effective. If you're insincere, it's manipulative.”
           Zig Zigler

Yesterday I talked about how preschoolers respond to praise. Older children can also respond to praise, but they are much more discriminating in the types of, frequency of, and giver of praise.

Research has shown that children seven and under are not so selective about the praise they receive. They often respond to most praise and do not readily see the sincerity or insincerity of the “praiser.” However, children older than this (and this is extremely relative because if children are allowed to be children longer, they keep their innocence and sweet naivety longer) are not so ready to buy the praise lines of everybody.

Older children who perceive that you are insincerely praising them often mistake that praise for pity. They think that you are praising them because you feel sorry for them or think they cannot accomplish things (Henderlong and Lepper 2002). They also often think that when an adult is syrupy with praise, he or she is trying to manipulate (Meyer 1992).

I have seen this borne out with my children. A couple of my children have as their primary love language (more on that later!) words of affirmation. They love to affirm others—and they love to receive affirmation. Because this is their love language, the praise they receive always had to be “just so.” If I just told them they were the greatest fourteen year old daughter or the most amazing sixteen year old son, they would often respond with “You have to say that; you’re my mom.” General, sweeping, effusive praise did not work on these kids! They also sensed that when I would give general praise I was avoiding the specific: “You’re saying I ‘was awesome’ because you thought my speech needed work in the middle.” And they were usually right!

Overpraising a child has the same effect as sweeping, general praise. My kids once had an art teacher who would always start her critique of their work with, “This is just perfect!” Then she would tell them what they needed to work on and what they should change. My “discriminating praise receiver” would go crazy over this: “It can’t be ‘perfect’ or else there wouldn’t be anything to change.” This teacher was outstanding, just a little too sweet! She couldn’t bear the thought of telling a student what he or she needed to work on, so she tried to soften the criticism with “perfect praise,” which does not work well on older kids.

I try to remember this with my writing students. I tell them specifics that are good—good transitions; strong thesis statement; outstanding quotation and double quotation use, etc. And I tell them specifics that need improvement: the main topic of your report is redundant—make a synonym or similar words list to fix that; you can’t join two sentences as one with a comma only; etc. They respond to the specific, sincere praise of the aspects of their paper that they truly did well in. And they respond to the aspects of their paper that they need to work on more readily.

Besides the “you’re perfect” praise, we have to watch for any generalities that simply cannot be true. These include phrasing such as “You are the best colorer in the world,” “There is nobody who can play the piano like you,” etc. Only in extremely rare cases would this be true. We would be better off telling the child that he is being so detailed and careful to stay in the lines that well or that we can really tell that he practiced all of his songs diligently this week—his music sounds terrific.

Finally, overpraise is interpreted as insincere praise. We all know the parent who dotes on her child, commenting about every move the child makes: “You are the best slider in the entire park! Oh, my, you run so fast. There isn’t any little boy who can run as fast as you. Look at those dimples. You are the cutest kid in your preschool!” Now, that might or might not work with a preschooler, but it isn’t healthy regardless of the age and definitely does not work for tweens and teens.

For one thing, the praise is not meaningful because everything the child does cannot be that wonderful! (Okay, I sometimes think everything my kids do is wonderful, but generally speaking, most kids are not great all the time!) For another thing, the child will be so used to hearing that everything is great, that he or she will not be able to tell when something is really good. Lastly, overpraising forces us to lie to our children.

Again, specific, character-driven, process-based, non-constant, genuine, non-syrupy praise works best on older kids. We want to encourage our children in excellence, help them develop the skills and talents they have been given, and endear them to us. Purposeful, honest praise can help us do those things.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

day forty-three: use praise liberally with preschoolers

“The prime purpose of being four is to enjoy being four - of secondary importance is to prepare for being five.” Jim Trelease, The Read-Aloud Handbook

Preschoolers are incredible! I have always said (since my second-born, semi-strong-willed toddler turned four!) that four to six is my favorite age of kids. Of course, that is relative, as, for the most part, my favorite age was the age that each of my children was at that moment!

Preschoolers and praise go hand in hand. More than at any other age, preschoolers who are praised respond favorably, often altering their behavior as a result of praise. For example, several studies have shown that when preschooler are praised for exhibiting good manners, they develop better social skills.

Without going into great detail about research on preschoolers and praise, I will tell you something that anybody with a preschooler already knows: preschoolers usually respond enthusiastically to praise! For the most part, preschoolers are pleasers. If we praise our preschooler for a behavior he exhibits, and he senses that we are pleased with him for that behavior, he will likely repeat it.

Now, some might see this as manipulation, but I have always believed that four to six years of age is such a crucially-formative time for children, why not praise good behavior and positive character and give these little dollies opportunities to continue in those behaviors and receive more positive feedback—in the hopes of those actions becoming permanent? After all, aren’t our children given to us to raise and “train up in the way they should go”?

Preschoolers are often literal. If we give them reason to think they are “bad,” they will believe it—and often continue to act on it. If we give them reason to think they are “good,” they will believe it—and often continue to act on it. This, of course, is a good reason to be sure that we direct our praise to their behaviors and actions—and not to the child himself. Our praise should motivate a child’s behavior, not cause him to think of himself in terms of being a “bad kid” if he gets mostly reprimands or a “good kid” if he gets mostly praise.

It is important in praising our children (or our students, for those of you who are teachers) that we consider the age of the child. Since preschoolers are so literal and, well, a little na├»ve, they will more likely accept general or more “gushy” praise. If we tell a four year old that she did an awesome job cleaning her room, she will likely be moved by that. If we tell an eight year old the same thing, she may or may not be moved by that, but would likely respond more favorably to “I love the way you organized your bookcase. Thanks for taking the initiative to do that” than “awesome job.”

The preschool age is truly the time to use the tool of praise to teach, to tie heartstrings, to build our children up, and to instruct in appropriate and positive behaviors. After all, what else do four year olds have to do except to be four--and prepare for being five?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

day forty-two: give your children specific, descriptive, character-based praise

Besides research agreeing with our early mentors to praise those things that the child has control over, research also indicates that giving specific praise is more beneficial than vague praises. Dr. Alexander Barzvi, a clinical psychologist specializing in children and families at New York University Child Study Center, has done extensive research on the effect of praise on children—and what type of praise is most effective.

While I do not think it takes a “study” to show us how to raise our children, when research is (1) confirmed in my experience or the experience of those around me and/or (2) in sync with Scriptural principles, and/or (3) logical enough to try, I tend to look at it more closely. In the case of Dr. Barzvi’s findings to praise children specifically for effort, it seems to meet all of my “qualifications” for examining it more closely.

First of all, I have seen through my experiences the power of praising a child specifically as he or she is learning and growing and praising for the effort the child put forth (or the resourcefulness, kindness, generosity, cleverness, wisdom, etc. exemplified) by the child. Likewise, Barzvi’s research has pointed out the need to praise particular behaviors that are positive—and that you would like to see the child continue to exemplify.

Secondly, Scripture is replete with admonitions to “do good deeds,” “show good character,” “behave in a manner pleasing to the Lord,” etc. Praising children for good character, very specifically, seems to be in sync with how the Bible teaches us to live—with godly character. So it follows that we would want to train our children by praising virtuous behaviors in a way that they can relate to, understand, and act on.

Thirdly, it is logical. I respond to specific advice and praise. Adults don’t like vague, flattering words—so I assume kids do not either!

Of course, this kind of praise requires more than a mere “Great job!” It requires description. Descriptive, specific praise is a teaching tool. It not only shows your approval of the child’s actions, but it also gives him something to watch for in the future--and ideas about proper behaviors.

I use descriptive praise with my writing students in our homeschool cottage classes all of the time—and it is not only an encouragement and teaching tool for the student being praised, but it is also a teaching tool for his or her classmates. For example, last week, as everybody’s rough draft reports were circulating for peer editing, I said, “Raquel, your transitions were amazing!” Then I proceeded to read some of them aloud, point out how some were at the beginning of the new paragraph and some were at the end of the previous one, etc. As her report circulated, I am sure her peers were paying special attention to those transitions. If they were good for Raquel, I want to learn how to do it too!

Then, in another class, I asked, “Who has the orange pen today?” And when the student raised her hand, I commented that her editing was so thorough and helpful this week. Again, this praise was specific—thorough, helpful editing. It was also descriptive; the student knew just what she did that pleased me. Likewise, her peers knew that they should move their editing up a notch, work a little harder on their critiques, etc.

With my own kids, I try to do the same thing. Not just “good homework,” but “your penmanship is so neat on this page; that looks awesome!” Not just “good work on the laundry,” but “you don’t know how much I appreciate your hanging my sweaters fronts facing out—thanks for paying attention to the details and being so diligent!” (Yes, our kids do laundry!) Not just, “thanks for driving the boys to church,” but “I appreciate you driving the boys to church and always being so careful and wise when you drive.”

Descriptive, specific, character-based, process-focused, in the child’s-ability-to-control praise. Let’s all give it a try today!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

day forty-one: praise your children for things that are in their control

“A torn jacket is soon mended, but hard words bruise the heart of a child.”                                    
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Many, many years ago we received some excellent parenting advice: do not praise your children for things that are out of their control (i.e. intelligence, beauty, talent), but praise you children for things that they can affect (i.e. character, effort, diligence, resourcefulness, etc.) We tried to take this to heart—though I admit to praising their absolute “darlingness” more often than I should have!

A person may be born with great beauty, high intelligence, or outstanding skills. However, if that person does nothing with that quality, it is wasted. A person may be born with average looks, mediocre intelligence, and medium skills—and may go far simply because he used the things that he could control to make something of himself.

Our first daughter (second child) was highly intelligent, but she didn’t feel intelligent for a long time due to dyslexia and dysgraphia. Here she was a twelve year old who could read and comprehend anything; a twelve year old who knew more history than any adult I knew; a twelve year old who could read, comprehend, and teach the Bible far beyond her years, but because her spelling and penmanship were lagging by several years, she never felt that she was smart. While we did tell her that she was smart various times, we tried to focus much more on her effort (especially in the areas of penmanship and spelling, which she tried so hard to master); resourcefulness (utilizing other methods of learning); and “stick-tu-a-tive-ness.” Those character qualities that she acquired (the ones we praised her continually for) have taken her far in her short twenty-four years—and will continue to take her far as long as she strives as she has.

Research has borne this concept out in the past several years as more and more researchers have looked at what makes successful students, what makes kids tick, and how we can raise children with positive self esteem (and in Christian parenting, with appropriate self esteem). This week I will be sharing some of these studies, as well as some specific ways to praise your kids and motivate them with appropriate affirmation.

Today I leave you with the results of recent study about praising children for things they can control. Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark Lepper, psychologists who have analyzed over thirty years of studies on the effects of praise, determined that praise can be a positive motivator if we follow these guidelines:

1. Be sincere and specific with your praise

2. Praise kids only for traits that they have the power to change (good character!)

3. Be careful about praising kids for achievements that come easily

4. Encourage kids to focus on mastering skills (i.e. using the talents and skills they have to succeed) as opposed to focusing on others' skills or competing with others

Monday, February 8, 2010

day forty: praise your children in front of others—and praise them more than you reprimand them

“Praise your children openly, reprehend them secretly.” W. Cecil

We have a saying at our house that “public praise is worth twice as much as private praise.” It is a simple reminder to, yes, praise our children—but also to praise them in front of others. I try to make it a habit—to go out of my way to tell my kids how fantastic I think they are right in front of other people.

It is not uncommon for me to say, “I am amazed at how well Josiah keeps the bathrooms clean.” Or “I could not make it without the boys taking their turns cooking dinner” etc. etc. right in front of other people--and the child I am referring to. Sometimes it will be directly in front of the “praise-worthy” child and other times it will be within earshot—and I know that child is listening.

Another praise guideline that we try to keep in mind is that of 7:1 praise to reprimand ratio. That is, we should praise and encourage our children seven times for every one time that we correct or criticize.

Not long ago, several elementary kids came into the house after having speech class in the learning center (a room in our garage in which we teach homeschooled students classes) with Ray. One of the sweet little fourth grade girls came in and said to me and her mom, “Mr. Reish has to learn to say as many good things as he does bad!” Out of the mouth of babes! We have “feedback sheets” that we use for speech class, and it is very easy to get in the habit of marking only the things that the speaker needs to work on (and not the things he or she does well) during that limited time and space. This little girl was on to something—those feedback sheets need a praise column and a “work on” column!

When our older kids were little, during family meetings we would sometimes have what we called “church of Revelation” time—a time in which we listed many of each child’s strengths for that week verbally. We made a list ahead of time and said them aloud in front of the other kids…then (the “Revelation church” part)....we listed one thing (“one thing have I against you....”) that the child needed to work on. By listing all of the good things first, the child was more receptive to hearing the one thing he should work on. It gave each child something that we wanted him or her to try to improve—but not without first praising him or her for the good things.

I will be focusing a few posts this week on praising our children. There is a lot of interesting research out there about what to praise and how to praise our children. Also, we were instructed by very wise parents twenty years ago in what and how to praise (and this advice we received jives well with the research!). Lastly, I will share some lists of praises to use for all children in various areas. Hope you will join me the rest of this week as we learn more about praising and encouraging our children—and that you will praise your kids seven times more than you correct them—and remember that public praise is worth twice as much as private praise!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

day thirty-nine: be a merry mom or a glad dad

What kind of dad are you---a mad dad or a glad dad? How about you, Mom---are you a mean mom or a merry mom? Now, before you get defensive, my kids will be the first to tell that Ray is sometimes a mad dad---and I am not always a merry mom. We all have our days---and being a parent, managing a household, working full time, starting businesses, being involved in church ministries, etc. can all take its toll on our “niceness” factors. But, like I always ask my children: Are you characterized by it?

Little kids are painfully honest, so one of my younger kids usually tells it like it is: “Mom, you’re nice tonight. Not like you were the other days.” Or “What’s wrong with Dad? He’s in that mood again!” But, just like our children’s bad behaviors and fighting with each other---these situations should be the exception—not the norm.

I have been teaching my children since they were very small to be observant of human behavior and emotions. It is a skill that is vital in ministry and relationship building. A couple of my kids can spot a lonely person, an angry person, etc. a mile away. Some of them wouldn’t notice another’s emotional state unless the person screamed at them or visibly cried. My observant ones are also painfully honest. They ask questions like, “Why is so and so’s mom always frowning? Why does their dad always sigh real loud?”

How do your children rate you? While I am not into making our children happy and comfortable. And I don’t think they have to have bubbly parents all the time. I also don’t think they should have to have grumbling, sighing parents all the time---while we tell them to straighten up and have good attitudes!

Have you ever thought of some of our adult behaviors through the eyes of our children? I imagine they see Dad sighing as the equivalent of their eye rolling. And Mom’s nagging as the equivalent of their complaining. Yet, they get reprimanded for those behaviors!

I know when Jacob tells me he’s glad I’m happy today, it is certainly time for a “Mommy check up.” How about it? Mad dad or glad dad? Mean mom or merry mom? Check it out---and change that behavior---before you get sent to your room!