A Grammatical Approach to Praise
This week I had two different experiences of the use of praise. I heard a psychologist on the radio talking about how it was important to use adjectives rather than verbs when praising children. He said when we use adjectives as in “You are helpful”, rather than “you are helping” this enables children to see themselves as helpful; being helpful becomes part of their identity.
He also suggested that when describing behaviour that we don’t like, negative behaviours, it’s better to use words that distance the action from the child, such as “that was a silly thing to do”. This makes sense at one level. We don’t want our children to see themselves as silly or bad or wrong and they will do that if they hear those labels applied to them. When they think of themselves in those terms it’s not surprising if we get silly, bad or wrong behaviour. We do want our children to take on good qualities as part of their identity, to build strong self-esteem and because a child who sees himself as helpful is likely to behave in a helpful manner.
But there are two problems with this analysis.
The first is that when young children, generally under the age of eight, hear negative labels like naughty, bad or wrong even if they’re carefully being applied by a well-meaning adult to theirbehaviour rather than to them, eg that was naughty, the child often applies it to himself. This is an egocentric stage of his development when everything applies to him. It’s really better to be very wary of using negative labels of any kind around children including ones like shy, disorganised and bossy which we might not think are so terrible. We run the risk of pigeon-holing our children and cutting off possibilities for them to be a different way.
The second problem is that this kind of acknowledgment on its own suffers from lack of credibility. Our children need evidenced-based praise! I was working with a group of 9 and 10 year olds this week who, when told they were brave or caring or kind immediately denied it! They rejected this form of praise and would not believe it. It was intriguing how uncomfortable the children felt. This often happens as kids get older. A child may hear this kind of praise and doubt it because he is notalways a helpful person and it may create pressure for him to be always helpful, which he knows he can’t do. He will know others who are more helpful than he is and discount the well-intentioned words. This is all the more true for a child who has developed a negative identity over time. A child who has grown up hearing a lot of criticism will find it even harder to believe positive words when they come his way.
So what can adults do? It is more believable and less pressurising if, when you’re praising, you also use verbs “you’re taking your plate over to the dishwasher –you’re helping” to point out what the child is doing that is helpful. Notice and mention what the child is doing right. That way the evidence is before him and he can’t deny it. It is more likely to be believed and taken in at the level of identity. He can see that he can be a helpful person. We call this descriptive praise but it describes the actions of the child and it is an evidenced-based approach which is really effective because it is credible.