How Not To Talk To Your Kids - Part 8 (tips on effective praise, con't)
Okay, one more, specifically on praise tips. After this post, we're going to then return to some of the issues raised by praise, rewards, self-esteem, etc., on a broader, more thematic level. Which I'm really looking forward to– just some fascinating ideas we can't wait to share. (If you're saying, "No, Mars needs more praise tips," well, I'm sure there will more along the way. Just not necessarily in a list like this. So stick around – I promise, the other stuff will be well-worth reading.)
12. Don't Praise Undeserved Success
One more that I'm probably guilty of with my tutoring kids. If a child gets an "A" but he didn't work for it, that's still not time for a lot of praise. (Dr. Dweck would probably say no praise at all.) Instead, the answer to that should be "That's good, but it wasn't enough of a challenge for you. Let's go find something you can learn from."
I think the hard part here may be knowing when a kid really applied himself or not. You wouldn't want not to praise a kid who worked hard, by saying, "Here's something even harder to do." That would make him feel like he could never do enough. But if it's clear that the kid didn't apply himself, then, I guess that's the time to challenge him further.
13. Know Your Praise Audience
I admit that this is ridiculously obvious, but don't forget to consider the kid you're talking to when figuring out how and when to praise – how have they already responded to praise, are they self-conscious, etc. Consider their ages: remember that a younger child takes your praise at face-value, but as the child ages, praise may become increasingly suspect. By the time the kid's a teenager, no praise at all – just straight unadorned feedback – may be more effective than actual words of praise. (I know we've said that before, but that just continues to blow me away.) Also consider how already sensitive they are, or aren't, to peer-groups/social-standing – how will your praise affect that? (That's one we haven't yet explored in substance, but we will later).
14. Avoid Praise-Inflation
Since our piece came out last week, I've seen a lot of posts where people are relaying a praise horror story – where a parent who effusively praised a kid for doing nothing. I think the real problem with this praise for no achievement is that it will likely force the parents into constantly escalating their praise – they've got to up the ante when and if the kids actually achieve something worthy of praise. By time the kid's still pretty young, they'll have used up all the superlatives – how will they communicate their approval, then?
Also, inflated praise may distort the kid's view of the quality of his work – because the parents are raving about something that isn't necessarily worth that level of commendation.
The Praise Uber-Tip: Be Honest
One of the toughest things that Po and I have dealt with whenever we've talked about praise tips is the fact that a lot of them start with the word "Don't" – e.g., don't overpraise, don't confuse praise with encouragement. In fact, most of the articles I've seen that give advice on effective praising usually seem to be more a list of things to stop doing, than constructive things to do. I think that goes back to the reality that so much of our praise has an agenda – using praise to control for future behavior, etc.
And well, I think a lot of time praise is conversational filler – a slightly more eloquent version of "um" and "er." Praise is the quickest, easiest response to something a kid – anyone, really – does. As we were writing our piece, I kept thinking about the old adage, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" – but the truth is that you have to know someone really well to be comfortable with silence. So we praise.
Really, I think if you're stuck in a given situation, and you're uncertain as to what to say – err on honesty. I think that these specifics are helpful – that's why I've been writing about them – but I think at the core of a lot of them is a call to be honest: if that's your guidepost, then you're probably at least half-way there.