My 4-year-old brought the drawing to me and held it out. It was a picture of a turkey he had made at preschool. “Do you like it?” he asked. I glanced up from my iPhone. “Good job!” I felt guilty as he wandered off to look for Legos, drawing in hand. In all honesty, I had barely looked at the drawing, hadn’t commented on the brightly colored feathers or the way he had taken the time to print his name below the turkey.
It was a scenario that played out more often than I would like to admit. I hoped that my almost-kindergartner felt loved and valued and developed a strong sense of self-worth, but was I really building his confidence by giving a quick “Good job!” each time he brushed his teeth, cleaned his room or colored a turkey? I thought about the way I used praise with my preschooler and if it seemed effective. Instead of using that phrase for real accomplishments, I was overusing it, essentially making it meaningless. A response of “Good job!” wasn’t describing what I appreciated about the drawing, the care he took to practice printing his name or how he had made an effort to color within the lines.
I needed to re-think the way I was using praise to communicate.
I became more intentional with the phrases I was using, in an effort to help my son feel pride in his accomplishments. A book that was helpful for me during this learning process was How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I am by no means an expert and still struggle with letting go of generic praise some days, but I’ve enjoyed seeing the benefits of my preschooler’s newfound confidence in his schoolwork and at home. Here are some of my alternatives to replace lazy praise:
Describe what you see and feel.
It’s as easy as it sounds. “I noticed that you picked up your toy cars and trains without being asked. You put them all in the correct baskets!” Noticing and describing the positive things your child does focuses on the effort instead of the results. This has made a difference in helping my preschooler to become aware of his own strengths, as well. A simple, positive observation can be more effective than an insincere, generic phrase.
Be specific with your praise.
I use praise as specifically as possible. My preschooler picks out his own pajamas most nights. This means he will sometimes go to bed with mismatched p.j. tops and bottoms possibly backward or inside out. Totally fine and part of the learning process! But recently, I noticed he had independently picked out a matching p.j. top and bottom, putting both on correctly. This was a perfect opportunity to use specific praise. “Thank you for putting on your pajamas! You picked out the matching top and bottom of your Hulk pajamas and put them on the right way all by yourself. Now that you’re ready, we can watch a few minutes of the movie you asked for.”
Use praise at unlikely times.
Last fall, my preschooler was experiencing difficulty with proper scissor-holding technique. I knew he was feeling frustrated because of ongoing hand-eye coordination challenges. I repeatedly showed him the proper way to hold scissors while allowing lots of practice time, but he couldn’t quite get the hang of it. I looked for ways to encourage him. What worked was praising him for small achievements at the times he was frustrated. It’s easy to praise your child when he accomplishes something exceptional, but not as easy when he is not doing well with a task.”I can see that you have been working very hard to finish cutting out those snowflakes. That shows a lot of determination!” Look for ways to praise at unlikely times in order to motivate your child.
Are you ready to ditch “good job” in favor of more meaningful alternatives? What confidence-building techniques have worked for your family?