Why is my son aggressive towards his little brother? Why does my child have so many tantrums? How do I make a phone call without being constantly interrupted?
These are common questions pondered by parents of young children. Children may come in small packages, but their felt presence often far exceeds the space they occupy. When considering how to manage these often frustrating behaviors, it can be helpful to consider the purpose of the behaviors and what is reinforcing them.
Attention is a powerful way to reinforce behavior, whether we want to or not. Decades of research suggests that this potent tool is integral in both reinforcing certain misbehaviors, and can also be integral in managing them as well. This is excellent news! Parents have a powerful resource at our disposal to use for the purposes of redirecting children into patient, polite, calm, and more social behaviors.
Parents that recognize that their child is motivated by their positive attention, and thus give their child a daily dose of quality, positive interactions, tend to experience more satisfaction in parenting and reduced parental stress.
Research is clear that parents cannot “over praise” their children if the praise is specific, well-timed, genuine, and about something that the child can control.
One effective attention tool is praise. Parents sometimes get conflicting messages in the parenting world about whether praise is good or bad. There are concerns about spoiling and over-inflating esteem and ego of children too much. Concerns arise sometimes about if praising will create a child that is only motivated via external feedback. Research is clear that parents cannot “over praise” their children if the praise is specific, well-timed, genuine, and about something that the child can control.
Specific praise informs the child about what they are doing that that the parent likes (which also clues them in to what behavior they could show again in order to please the parent in the future). For example, saying, “good job!” is less effective than saying, “good job of keeping your body calm when your brother knocked down your tower, or “thank you for calming down, I like it when you use a calm voice, or “You did such a great job of playing quietly while I finished my phone conversation!”
Adults often appreciate when they are noticed at their workplace for specific things that they do well, which often encourages productivity. Children respond similarly to specific praise.
Well-timed praise occurs as soon after the behavior as possible. When praise is timed well, the child experiences an immediate reward for their behavior. It encourages that behavior again in the future, and the lure of positive attention will often keep them looking for more ways to earn praise.
Children have control over whether they follow directions right away, the effort they put into completing their homework, sharing with siblings. ... Kids do not have control over how “smart” or attractive they are.
Children really know their parents well. This emphasizes the power of praise being genuine with children, because they usually know the difference. When we praise children for things that are true, they gain an honest sense of themselves from the parent’s perspective.
Children have control over whether they follow directions right away, the effort they put into completing their homework, sharing with siblings, being gentle, using appropriate language, etc. Kids do not have control over how “smart” or attractive they are. It is beneficial to put effort into praising kids for those things that they can reasonably control, as it reinforces behaviors such as making good choices, developing independence,and striving towards growth or self-improvement.
A parent might decide that instead of saying, “You are such a great soccer player,” they might choose to reinforce behavior that makes them great,such as, “You’ve worked so hard during practice and it shows! Your soccer skills are improving because of all of that running and dribbling practice that you’ve been doing.” The child then connects the behavior of practicing with improved skill and can both feel great about their accomplishments while also understanding how they got to that point.
Praise is just one of many tools of attention that parents can use to motivate children toward desirable behavior. Praise is important. It builds self-confidence, self-esteem, increases a child’s desire to please, and also strengthens the parent-child relationship. When parents emphasize praise as a way to give positive attention to their children, noticing all of the wonderful things that their children are doing becomes easier, behaviors can shift as parental stress improves.
Jenn Lockwood is parenting coach and program director at Brigid Collins Family Support Center in Bellingham.