Praising the good

I hear so many things about giving attention to what you want more of. But it is amazingly difficult to not comment when my children are doing something bad.  In our household, this would mean ignoring the things I don’t want my teenage girls to do, like spending too long watching TV, And commenting when they are doing something I really want them to, such as tidying up after themselves.

Refraining from criticism

Since we were children we have been criticized and told what to do. We have the examples of our parents and every teacher in history, who have picked up on our mistakes. If a child is picking their nose, it takes a herculean effort not to suggest they stop and seems a bit odd to then remark that they are not picking when you notice that they have stopped.

What is ‘descriptive praise’?

I have been trying to introduce the technique of ‘descriptive praise’ into my daily communications with my children. (This is a technique described by Noel Janis Norton, and taught by the Parent Practice on their parenting courses). It involves noticing all the small improvements in effort, attitude or progress that a child makes, and describing exactly what it is that you notice about their behaviour. For example ‘I notice that you
cleared away nearly everything you used to make your tuna pasta’.

The challenge of remembering

I’m going to have to say, though, that this is going to be a difficult habit to learn. It is not natural to remark on when your child is NOT doing something like arguing or watching TV. I am a particularly unobservant person, so it takes a great deal of detective work on my behalf to notice when something HAS been tidied away when all I can see is the rest of the mess that is left on the kitchen table.

Nagging doesn’t work

I’m sure by now you are wondering why bother? Why not tell a child off when they do something wrong, and when they do something right just ignore them? I’m going to have to agree… it seems pretty strange to me too. However, the big question is ‘does nagging and telling off work?’ Have your children stopped all of their annoying habits and do they co-operate and behave really well? If not, then it may be worth giving ‘Descriptive praise’ a try.

When I nag or suggest my child does something I watch them tuning me out. I can see their eyes glaze over. And this week I have been aware that I do exactly the same when my husband suggests I improve in some small matter (actually it was me being impatient). I tuned him out and started making for the door.

Lifting the mood at home

So this week I have taken a step back and just watched. I have tried to comment when my children do something right and to say exactly what it is about the action that I appreciated or how it demonstrated some sort of quality that they are developing. But I’m aware that I don’t do it nearly enough -maybe only a few times a day. However, I am beginning to see the real value of descriptive praise and am going to really try to improve the number of little things I notice. Why? Because this week mealtimes and conversations with my family have been happier occasions. I am talking more with my girls than ever before. So it’s got to be worth the effort!

The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

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