What is descriptive praise? Noel Janis-Norton in her excellent international bestseller “Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting” (2013) defines it as “noticing and then specifically describing what your child has done that please you.” It’s looking for opportunities to catch your child being good, and then using concrete, specific words to acknowledge the positive behavior.
“I saw the way you gave the baby a piece of your cookie. I love the way you shared.” “I heard you using words instead of hitting. Nice self control!” “Thanks for coming to help me carry in the groceries. How helpful and thoughtful of you!” Even if he might have shared the cookie with the baby because he wanted to prevent a painfully loud scream if he didn’t, or even if he just happened to be standing there by the trunk of the car rather than purposefully coming to help, go ahead and pretend or assume the best, so the child learns to want to behave that way. Point out the positive practical consequences. “You shared with him, and see? Now he’s sharing with you.” “Good thing you helped me bring in the groceries. Those popsicles would have melted. Would you like one?”
Reinforce the praise later during conversation. Let your child overhear you as you tell Papa how he shared with the baby. If you have a habit of conversing as you put your child to bed or a tradition of bedtime prayers, try to bring up at least one good thing your child did that day. He’ll learn to tune in to listen during that special time of recollection together, and come to look forward to it.
Making descriptive praise a habit creates a positive, nurturing family atmosphere. Descriptive praise is the most powerful tool to gain cooperation from your child and to motivate and shape attitude and behavior. But it is even much more than that. Consider the following scenario. You are trying to lug a heavy box from one room to another. You could make a behavioral contract with the child, and say, “If you help me move this box, you earn 10 more minutes of computer time.” Better yet, you could say, “Wow, if you help move the box, I’ll finish my work sooner and have a few minutes to play with you.”
But now picture this. You groan and moan as you tug at the box. “It’s so very heavy! Oh my, I just can’t seem to move this by myself.” Your child looks up. “Maybe there’s hope! I see you’ve noticed Mom’s desperate situation. You’re even getting up although I bet you’d rather keep playing with your toys. Oh joy, can I dare to hope? Hurrah! Help to the rescue!” After the job is done, you might conclude with, ” Just what I needed- a strong, fine young fellow to save the day!”
Both methods might get your child to help you move the box. But with the behavioral contract, the motivation is external, and it’s you taking the initiative and basically telling your child what to do. With descriptive praise, the support is from behind as you acknowledge every little step in the right direction he takes on his own initiative. But that is the way he internalizes motivation and learns to initiate. He’s helping you because you’re fun to help. So he’s learning that helping others is rewarding. He’s also bonding more with you. Your relationship, which was the initial motivator, in turn gets strengthened even more as that connection between pleasure and interaction gets reinforced one more time.
The acknowledgement you give your child for looking up encourages him to get up from the floor. When you acknowledge his getting up and sacrificing his fun with his toys you motivate him to help push the box. By descriptively praising each little step, he gains the momentum to do what seemed impossible at first. When you call him a strong, fine fellow, you build your child’s self-esteem, self-concept, and help him internalize the value of hard work and helpfulness.
So make descriptive praise a habit. In the beginning, you may need to pair it with an external reward, but eventually you will be able to fade the contracts, as your child builds that internal standard. Instead of laboriously pulling from ahead, you’ll be able to gently push from behind. As soon as your child can do without the contracts, make it a goal to cut the tow ropes, and try to just remain the wind that fills his sails.