A little praise can go a long way

Praising children at least five times a day is beneficial, says clinical psychologist and family therapist Charlene Aquilina
Photo: Shutterstock.com

Living away from Malta in the past year has made me reflect on our Maltese culture and how we tend to be very hard on ourselves and may find it easier to criticise rather than to offer praise or constructive feedback.

As a side note, I truly believe that Malta has a lot of beauty to offer, and this deserves to be celebrated. The attitude-shift in acknowledging the good and striving to work on protecting what is dear to us, while also working on improvement, can further reflect on how as parents we choose to interact with and nurture our children.

As parents, it might be helpful to engage in self-reflection and to ask whether we often find ourselves criticising our children rather than praising them? What might be influencing our approach? How were we praised and criticised when we were children? What did we need as children? How can we be better parents for our children? These are all helpful questions that come to mind, which may open the door for more introspection and positive parenting with intention.

What is praise?

Praise can be defined simply as outlining positive behaviour, strengths, talents and positive attitude in a detailed manner as much as possible, whereby children can feel seen and validated. All children deserve to be praised. The more direct the praise, the better.

Phrases like:

 – Well done for persevering and not giving up on building that tower!

 – I can see how you managed to take turns with your sister, well done!

 You experienced a very big emotion there and you managed to calm down by drawing. I am proud of you for trying your best to control your emotions!

Are much more preferred than:

 Well done! You finally completed that tower building. I didn’t think you could actually do it.

 – I can see how you managed to take turns with your sister this time, good … unlike yesterday or this morning.

 That was a very big emotion and finally you stopped whining and crying. I feel tired of this behaviour.

Additionally, there are some popular parenting phrases in Maltese culture which were used a lot in the past, but nowadays we are more conscious of how harmful they can be. We also know how important it is as parents to contain our stress and frustration, rather than letting it all out on our children.

One particular Maltese phrase that comes to mind is: “jekk taqa’ inkompli ntik!”.  I have heard this one so many times. I am surely not here to judge or pretend to be a better mum than any parent out there. My heart truly goes out to all parents, as I can really empathise with them and know how tough parenting is and how burnt out one may feel at times.

At the same time, part of my role as a psychologist and a family therapist is to educate and reflect on what can help or hinder our children’s well-being. And this particular phrase is surely not a positive one.

What message do we wish to give our children? Do we wish to tell them that we are going to be there for them no matter what? Or do we wish to tell them that if they decide to make mistakes then we are not going to be of any support to them? Do we want our children to come to us and confide in us now and when they are older? Or do we not want them to share what they are going through in their lives?

Keep in mind that the little choices that we make every day as parents add up into bigger choices, and that the little choices may not be so little after all! Relationships are built day in and day out, and yes, they require ample patience, nurture and dedication.

When parents highlight the ‘good’ behaviour, children are more likely to engage in such behaviour again as deep down all children have this innate wish to be loved, accepted and celebrated by their parents. Hence, when children feel that their parents are giving more attention to their positive behaviour, they will be more motivated to engage in the same behaviour so as to continue gaining their parents’ attention.

Children, however, should not be put in a position to fight for our attention, as really and truly they deserve and need our attention to support them in their life journeys. At the same time, as parents sometimes we also need our personal space and time, thereby putting up healthy boundaries and also making sure to structure in that special quality time, where undivided attention is given to the children, remains vital.

This could be a special daytime or nighttime routine, or a simple winding down stroll after school. Letting our children be in charge of choosing what activities they wish to do with their parents may help children to feel more in control and to have more fun. In turn, this will positively influence the parent-child relationship.

A recent study by De Montfort University in Leicester, the UK, highlighted the importance of giving children at least five praises a day. According to this research, when parents do this, there is a positive ripple effect on their children’s behaviour and attention levels even in the long term. Children may also feel calmer and may have more understanding of what the ‘good’ behaviour that deserves praise is. Hence, children are then more likely to engage in ‘good’ behaviour. Alternatively, the parents’ mindset may also shift from being one solely focused on the ‘problematic’ behaviour to a mindset which is more open to seeing and validating the ‘positive’ behaviour. The quicker and the more direct the praise, the more effective it is.

Using praise

Catch your children being good: As parents, we are encouraged to be more alert to find the good in our children and to highlight it more explicitly throughout the day. For example : “You are sharing your soft toys with your brother. You are being very kind!”

Describe the positive behaviour you are praising: Rather than just saying “good girl” or “good boy”, it is important to state exactly which behaviour you are referring to so that your children understand which behaviour is being praised, and this helps them to repeat it in the future. For example: “You cleaned up all of the blocks and put them in the cupboard. Thank you!”

Put your emphasis on the effort rather than the results: As parents, it is helpful to teach our children the importance of perseverance and hard work. Thus, the focus of our praise should not be on the achievement, but more on the effort behind it. For example, “I can see that you worked very hard on that drawing.”

Notice the little changes: It takes time for children to learn new skills and behaviours. Therefore, it is important to praise the little changes of progress. This encourages our children to believe more in themselves and not to give up! “Wow you managed to balance on one leg for longer!”

Offering praise at least five times a day: Here are some more ideas on what genuine and simple praises parents can offer to their children throughout the day :

– “You were very strong in helping me with the groceries today!”

– “You were so kind in helping your sister with her homework!”

– “I can see how creative you are when you paint!”

– “You were so brave in going up that big slide on your own!”

– “You managed to calm down through deep breathing, well done!”

– “Thank you for listening to me, I am proud of the young lady you are becoming.”

Final thoughts

Let’s praise all those parents who are doing a good enough job. Just as we praise our children, it is equally important as parents to praise ourselves and our significant others. Giving genuine compliments and expressing our appreciation as well as gratitude can truly help to fill one’s heart with more energy and motivation.

Finally, keep in mind that making little positive changes to how we interact daily with our children can help to support their development and well-being. A little praise can go a long way!

With love from one parent to another.

This article is being published in collaboration with Positive Parenting Malta. You can view the original article here.

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