I’d like to add a new phrase to your vocabulary: descriptive praise. This is a tool I have found extremely helpful in reflecting strengths to my children. It is the first practical step you can take to be positive to your child.
Descriptive praise is a special type of praise. Remember, the function of a mirror is to reflect an image as it is. That is what descriptive praise does. It reflects a child’s behaviour in a way that causes him to feel loved and capable, and it teaches him to feel good about the things he has done.
With descriptive praise, you concentrate more on who the person is, his behavioural traits, rather than on what he does. Over the long haul, if a child receives praise primarily for what he does, he grows up basing his self-worth on his performance and how well he measures up to what is expected of him. In Bringing Up Kids Without Tearing Them Down, Dr. Kevin Leman wrote, “Many people – adults and children – believe that, unless I perform, unless I achieve, unless I do things people like, I won’t be loved or approved of. I’ll be a nothing.”
Let’s say your child takes the initiative to clean all the bathrooms in the house. Rather than merely saying “Great job!” use descriptive praise: “Dan, I noticed that you cleaned all the bathrooms without being asked. Mum and I really appreciate that – it saves us a lot of work. And the fact that you did it shows you have the ability to take initiative.”
The difference is subtle but important. By describing his behaviour and character, you let your child know that he has self-worth because of the unique way God designed him. This kind of praise helps a child know himself and feel good about the natural strengths given to him.
To begin using descriptive praise to encourage your child, I suggest three steps:
- Describe what you see. “Nicole, I’ve noticed that you work very hard to keep your room neat and tidy.”
- If possible, describe how you feel. “It’s a pleasure to walk into this room.”
- Name the strength. Sum up the positive strength in one or two words. “That’s what I call being responsible.”
The first step helps the child picture his behaviour. The room is neat and tidy. The homework was finished without the parent having to tell the child to do it. The child has coloured a pretty picture for you.
The second step helps him see how his behaviour can benefit and please other people. “I appreciate how you have cleaned up your room.” “It is a big help to me when you finish your homework without my having to tell you. Thanks!” “It makes me feel so good inside to know that you coloured this picture just for me!”
And assigning a descriptive term to your child’s behaviour helps to reinforce it. The idea is to tell the child something about himself that he may not have known before, to give him a verbal snapshot of himself.
Used consistently, descriptive praise may be the best practical way to train your child according to his design. It shows a child what his strengths are and how to use them constructively. To your child, descriptive praise can be a source of lifelong encouragement.
Dr. Charles F. Boyd is the author of Different Children, Different Needs which has sold over 100,000 copies and has been translated into several languages.