Empty praise soon backfires.

My children’s teacher used to tell me to find 3 things to praise before trying to fix anything. This never worked, because after the third, they would both invariably give me an old fashioned look and snarl, “But?” For many years, I have wondered why my efforts to inspire them with praise could have fallen so flat. Current research shows that I needed to be much more careful about the way I praised them, so let’s think about the 3 Common Mistakes People Make About Praise.

Our teacher even gave me a list of 100 ways of saying, “Very good.”

Good for you!
I couldn’t have done it better myself.
You make it look easy.
You really make my job fun.
That’s not half bad!
That’s the way!
Nice going.
That’s first class.
That’s the best ever.
You’re really going to town!

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  But you don’t need to waste your time laying this sort of praise on with a trowel.  This is just the sort of thing I used to do years ago, when I was trying to help my own young children to practice and it never made any difference.

How could this be?  I was telling them that they were good, wasn’t I?  Why was it that by the time they had finished practice, the children weren’t noticeably happy and I was exhausted?

1  I was praising results:  Always praise a child for effort rather than for results.  Studies have shown that children praised for results soon stop trying as hard as children praised for effort and focus.  This is because children who are praised for talent become quickly aware that they have a lot to loose if they don’t measure up. Studies have shown that these children come to believe that talent is something which you are given at birth.  Children who are praised for hard work will soon learn that they have everything to gain by working even harder and that they are in charge of growing their talent.

However tempting it is to focus on a frail treasury of results, helping a child to notice the value of work and focus is priceless.

2  I wasn’t praising truthfully:  Empty praise is a very easily learned habit. Superlative comments begin to pop out automatically and we learn to keep up the flow, no matter what.  It’s as if we feel an overpowering need to encourage, even if our children aren’t even trying and are being downright surly on top of it.  No way!  This is actually giving a child a message that trying is not important.   On top of this, don’t you feel uncomfortable when showered with undeserved praise.

We don’t really want to be caught lying to our children, I would lighten up a bit and to look for something tangible to praise.  This can take a little effort to start with, but the more we practice, the more observant we will become.

3  in order to praise your children’s hard work, you have to be ultra specific:  What is the good of belting out,  “Good job, Wonderful, Way to go, etc. etc.” if your children don’t know what you are talking about?  Kids aren’t mind readers.  Well, not all of the time.  Showering them with empty, nonspecific praise, produces a very fragile self esteem which is easily punctured by one careless remark.

This is very simple to address.  Before your children attempt a Practice Task, get it clear between you what you are looking for.  Maybe it’s keeping the pinkie on the bow.  If you notice anything that they are doing well, all you really need to do is to precis what they have just done.  For example, if you notice good feet, shoulders and pinkie, simply tell them  “You are standing on both feet, your shoulders look nice and soft and you are paying attention to keeping that pinkie on the bow” is enough.  You don’t need to waste time and energy on the full on cheerleader stuff.  Noticing is very powerful, because your children will instantly realise that they have your full attention. Don’t forget to mention how hard they worked at getting it right and you will be on to a winner.

Do have a look at how you deal with these 3 points, when you are helping your children and you will soon be well on the way to calm, purposeful practice sessions.  If you are interested, in improving your practice sessions, let me know and I’ll do my best to help.

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