How often do you praise your child? Is it a regular thing or something you reserve for special occasions (like exam success)? Do you do it more or less than you did when they were a baby?
These are important questions because praise is a great way to encourage good behaviour. Getting positive attention for doing the right thing motivates children to repeat that good behaviour.
But that doesn’t mean you have to wait for them to do something good before you can start parenting this way.
Today we’ll be looking at “indirect comparisons of praise” which is a technique used by teachers to inspire children to do the right thing.
Indirect comparisons of praise
This is a method I picked up during my teacher training:
Rather than saying, “Isabelle – sit quietly, please,” a teacher will often say, “James is sitting beautifully.” Isabelle then sees that James is being rewarded with positive attention for doing the right thing, so she decides to sit quietly too.
At no point has the teacher had to speak to Isabelle. There has been no disciplinary action, no cross words, no instructions, no negativity… and yet there is suddenly a class full of children doing exactly what they should be doing!
This is because children (and adults) crave positive attention. And they will modify their behaviour to get it!
I like this little trick because Isabelle is given the chance to work out what she should be doing for herself – she has clocked the desired behaviour, made a comparison with herself, and adjusted her actions accordingly. She is learning and growing as a person rather than just following instructions.
Praise comparisons in everyday life
So I’m sure you can see this is a very adaptable technique – you can compliment your kids on everything from, “Thank you for crossing the road so sensibly,” to, “I’m so pleased that you did your spellings straight away.”
The child who is receiving the praise is super happy because their good behaviour has been noticed. And the child who “overheard” the praise knows how you want them to behave in the future.
It’s a win-win.
Now of course, as a parent, you haven’t got a class full of children to pick from. You might have two or three alternatives at the most! It can still work but you need to be much more mindful about who you are highlighting – it can’t always be the same child that you praise!
If you have one child, it is a little more difficult to use. But with young children, you can still say things like, “I think the living room needs tidying. I wonder if there’s anyone in here who might be able to put the cushions back on the sofa for me…!” This gives your little one a chance to think about what they’re doing and offer to help, without being told to.
5 Traps and pitfalls
It’s always tricky trying something new, so I’ve put together a list of traps and pitfalls that you might come across.
If you make an direct comparison – “Isabelle please can you sit quietly like James – it implies that one child is better than the other. The key to this technique is to let the children work out that they need to copy the good example.
You need to share out the praise – it can’t always be the same child who is the model example, or the other children will begin to feel that you don’t like them as much. They will also come to resent you and the “favourite” child.
Don’t always praise the same things – try to look for a wide range of things. If you only praise a child for academic success, they will think that academics is the only thing you like about them. Make sure you are encouraging them in every part of their life.
Of course it’s fine to give general praise, but if you really want your children to learn what you think of as good behaviour, you need to be specific – don’t just say, “You’re a kind girl.” Instead, say, “You were so kind when you shared your sweets with Dylan.”
Different children have different strengths and weaknesses, so you need to adapt to each child. You can’t expect all children to reach the same standards. Maybe you have one child who always sits sensibly at the table, and one who wriggles around. Well if the wriggler manages 5mins of sitting still, grab that opportunity to make them the one you can praise. It doesn’t matter that the other sits still for much longer.
I hope you’ve found this useful. I much prefer to use positive praise to train my kids than yell at them. Have you ever tried this method? How did it work for you? Have you ever noticed school teachers using it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!
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