Praise Your Kids for Behaviors You Want Them to Have
Quick quiz: It’s dinner and your child is slumped in his chair, elbows on the table, shoveling food in his mouth. Seeing the exasperated look on your face, he takes his elbows off the table.
a. Tell him to sit up straight and take smaller bites.
b. Ignore him and drink more wine.
c. Praise him for doing something right.
When my daughter was younger, I usually took the first approach. I was constantly nagging her. I’d say she ate like a truck driver. Then I’d quickly apologize for disparaging truck drivers.
The nagging, I told myself, was for her benefit. And for others.
Good manners matter. They show respect. Our society could use more of that.
But here I was showing no respect for my daughter, not to mention truck drivers. And doing it in a way that was counter-productive.
I see now that nagging is a form of lazy parenting. You’re essentially venting your own frustrations, while failing to change your child’s behavior.
Now that my daughter is 13, and not just slumped at the table but when she walks down the street, I’m taking a new approach.
On the rare occasions when she stands up straight, and throws her shoulders back like Naomi Campbell on a catwalk, I praise her to the moon.
“You look amazing when you walk that way,” I say. “So straight and beautiful. I wish my posture was that good.”
It sounds like such an obvious overstatement, but she buys it. What’s more, she totally lights up, and keeps walking that way, trying to get more praise.
I often wonder why I didn’t do this before.
I had read that the negative things you say to your child can become ingrained. That’s why you’re supposed to say that children are “behaving badly” and not that “they are bad”. To me, though, this always seemed artificial and silly.
A funny aside: When I was in labor, my doctor called me a wimp. I loved this doctor and we had a joking relationship, and so I took it in stride in the moment. But later, after my daughter’s safe delivery, I said, “I can’t believe you called me a wimp.” He replied: “I didn’t call you a wimp. I said you were behaving like a wimp.”
The point of this post: I always thought my child was too clever to be easily manipulated and that I should be straight with her. I was wrong.
No one takes criticism well. It makes us defensive. We shut down. Compliments, by contrast, make us feel good, and scientists say light up a part of our brain similar to getting financial rewards. Being complimented, it turns out, may also help us to learn new behaviors.
So, really, what’s wrong with a little white lie? Especially one that by saying it becomes true.