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How to Praise Your Kids… without making them dependent on validation
“You are so smart.”
“What a good girl you are.”
These are praises that children often hear from their parents, and as a parent it can feel good saying them, but how helpful are these phrases?
Praising kids can be dangerous.
Let me get right to the point, telling kids how wonderful they are can make them to rely on that verbal affirmation of their accomplishment. When they don’t do well it can destroy them, and when no one is telling them how wonderful they are they might not be able to see it for themselves.
Let me elaborate with a scenario where the parents reactions in two different ways.
The child has just finished drawing a picture and brings it to their mother to see.
The mother says, “That’s a good picture. You are so creative.”
The child feels good, for a moment, because of the compliment.
Next time they draw a picture they do the same thing and it’s a continuous routine of drawing a picture and seeking praise.
Without the parent’s praise they might not be able to see what’s good about the drawing, they won’t recognize the creative skills they used to make such a masterpiece, all because they haven’t learned how.
Once again a child brings their drawing to their parent, but this time the parent says something very different.
“Well, in your drawing I see horses and buildings. You colored the barn red, just like at Grandpa’s farm. Horse is standing, but this one is laying down. Now that’s what I call creative.”
The child walks away knowing what’s good.
She knows specific things about the drawing that her mother liked, and she learnt a new word she can use to describe herself and her drawings – “creative.” Her mother encouraged her without having to say, “You are _____.” Her mother encouraged her in a way that taught her new skills so she can praise herself in the future.
The power of descriptive praise
In the second scenario, the parents used descriptive praise.
This means that the parent described what they saw, rather than making a general observation about the child they made a descriptive observation about what the child did.
The parent described the drawing and even said what she personally liked about it. She also could have even asked her child what SHE liked about it.
Descriptive praise builds self-esteem because children can begin to recognize their own achievements.
Rather than telling a child, “Great job,” you could tell them specifically what you liked about what they did. This will encourage them to do it again next time. They will actually enjoy the process, knowing it’s the process that makes the wonderful result.
It’s hard to grow up depending on validation
This world can be very cruel, as an adult (ok, even as a child) you can have your mistakes pointed out to you all the time.
It’s actually for that reason that many parents want to praise their children, because they know that the world might not. But empty praises are fleeting, and will create a dependency on validation.
So it is better to praise our children in a way that will ring through their ears for days and months to come, and teach them how to praise and validate them self when no one else will.
Because depending on validation is dangerous, when people deeply desire validation from others they will seek it out in many ways. People who depend on validation will be willing to stay in destructive relationships because they desire the validation. Or they could continue working towards something they don’t desire because of the praise they get for their accomplishments.
Those who depend on validation often don’t feel satisfied, because empty praise disappears quickly. You feel it for a moment, and then it’s gone, and so you must seek out a new one. Always seeking, but never satisfied. What a vicious cycle to be in.
So how can we use more descriptive praise with our children?
Once you learn how to use descriptive praise with your children it will come naturally to you, but in the meantime it might feel kind of cheesy and unnatural.
To get started though it shouldn’t be difficult, next time your child does something wonderful observe and describe what they have done. Say what you’re thinking and they will appreciate the observation and they will learn from it.
Look you picked up all your toys today, I don’t see a single toy on the floor they are all in the basket.
You are able to put on your hat and your mitts all by yourself.
Thank you for putting your laundry away, I like how you did it without having to be asked.
Today you rode your bike for the first time, for many weeks you’ve been learning how and today you finally did it. It must have been so exciting to realize that you know how to ride a bike.
These are just a few examples to give you an idea of what descriptive praise it sounds like.
Using descriptive praise to encourage better behaviour
Now to be honest here, we don’t all have perfect children, okay I’m sure none of us do.
Children make mistakes and they are still learning how to do things, and it can be very tempting to point out their mistakes. We might even think that by pointing out their mistakes next time they won’t make it, whether it be an intentional or unintentional mistake. Quite often it’s actually better to focus on what they did right, try not to describe the thing that they did wrong, but instead focus on what they did right, even if it is very small.
By pointing out what they did right you will encourage them to do better next time.
For example if your child spills food all over the floor and then cleans most of it up try not to focus on the mess that remains. Instead, you can say something like, “You spilled that food and then you got the dustpan to clean it up. I like that you decided to clean it up right away. Now I’m going to clean up these last few pieces or would you like to help me?”
This is much more positive and encouraging then saying something like, “Geez, you made such a huge mess, I can’t believe you’re so clumsy. And on top of that you couldn’t even clean it all up, and now I have to do it.”
Do you think the child will want to help clean up again in the future, let alone help the parents with the last few remaining pieces on the floor?
Quite likely not, instead they are probably feeling very sheepish and embarrassed, whereas in the first situation the child could feel confident and capable of correcting their mistakes. The parent didn’t get upset or focus on the mistake that was made, but they encourage the child efforts towards the solution and invited them to join them in finishing the task.
Positive language changes everything
This kind of positive language, through descriptive praise even when a child makes a mistake, is all part of gentle parenting. Positive language is one of the six pillars of Gentle Parenting which you can read about here. I also have an entire post on five steps to be a parent overflowing with positive language.
Positive language will change the way that your children look at themselves, and it will even change the way that you look at your child, if you need even more help to learn how to use positive language in your family then I would encourage you to sign up for my free Gentle Foundations for Parenting course.
This free 7-day email course will take you to the basics of gentle parenting including each of the six pillars of Gentle Parenting. You will learn how to use more positive language in your home, which will give your children more confidence and peace.
Your voice is the voice that children will start to hear in their heads, the way you speak to them will develop the way that they will speak to themselves. Language is an amazing tool, and we can use it to build up or to destroy, whether that be intentionally or unintentionally.
So sign up below for Gentle Foundations for Parenting to learn more positive language skills as well as other amazing Gentle Parenting strategies.
Make Your Home a Happy Home
The Moving Mama
Lizzy Mash is an experienced early childhood educator now living in Africa as a missionary working with children and families.
She teaches Christian moms how to take a more respectful and Christ-like approach to motherhood by using Gentle Parenting strategies.
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