Jump directly to the Content

The Power of Praise

A positive approach to encouraging good behavior

Right now, both of my older sons are mad at me?one because I grounded him for coming home late and the other because I made him vacuum the living room carpet twice (he missed a few, make that many, spots). He says I treat him like Cinderella.

I admit, I have been pretty negative toward my sons lately. As much as I want to say something positive to them, sometimes I honestly can?t think of anything. Disregarding curfew and shoddy vacuuming aren?t at the top of my list of "things to praise my kids for."

But I realize that even kids who exhibit irresponsible behavior need to be encouraged.

Author and speaker Dr. Howard Hendricks says, "When a child lives with parents who believe in her, she instinctively holds a higher view of herself." Research supports this. One well-known study revealed that when teachers have a positive perception of their students, those students score higher on IQ tests, even if their abilities are no different from those of their peers. In another study, research showed that juvenile delinquents who had been conditioned by excessive criticism couldn?t even recognize praise when it was offered.

It?s easy to commend a child when he brings home straight A?s, does his chores with a smile and asks for second helpings of Brussels sprouts. But let?s face it: sometimes kids are moody, stubborn or lazy. While there are plenty of times when our kids shine, there are also times when they fail miserably. And that?s when parents have to reach deep inside and get inventive in order to find a reason to affirm their children.

So how can we create a climate of praise when our children don?t always seem very praiseworthy? We can start by looking at the example set by God. "All of us are undeserving, yet God still values us," says marriage and family counselor David Ferreira, Ph.D. "Even if a child isn?t performing well or has a poor attitude, we can still let him know that he?s valuable in God?s eyes and in ours."

Here are some ways to do just that.

Get Specific

Phrases like "good job" or "nice going" are fine, but they have limited impact because they?re too vague. Specific communication is always more effective, says educator Kathy Koch. Praise that?s specific also affects future behavior. Not only will your child feel encouraged, he?ll also understand what he did well and will likely build on that.

Eight-year-old Elisa is one of those unique kids who likes a clean room, an organized desk and a bed that?s made. She?s also constantly on the lookout for jobs she can do around the house. It?s praise-worthy stuff, yet Elisa?s mom is so used to her daughter?s behavior, she sometimes forgets to acknowledge it.

One night at bedtime, however, she sat down with Elisa and said, "I want you to know how much I admire you for the way you take care of your room and for how hard you work. You have the heart of a servant, and I think God?s going to use you in a wonderful way someday." For Elisa, these words not only acknowledged the work she was doing well, they also encouraged her to continue using her skills in the future.

Learn to Lavish

In order to lead productive lives, children?like all people?need more praise than criticism. As parents, it?s important to recognize the power of our words. God has given us the responsibility of affirming our kids and guiding them toward good choices. Proverbs 3:27 says, "Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act."

Even though we know we should be generous with our praise, it?s easy to get caught up in the little things our kids do wrong and overlook the things they do right. That?s when you need a few tricks up your sleeve. One dad I know uses sticky notes to remind him to praise his wife and children. Although he?s pessimistic by nature and finds it difficult to offer up positive words, he has recognized the importance of praise and made it a priority in his life.

If praise doesn?t come naturally, try this popular sales trick: place 10 pennies in one pocket. Whenever you praise your child, transfer one penny to the other pocket. Your goal is to move all the pennies from one pocket to the other by the end of the day.

Take Action

While there?s no doubt verbal praise is important, sometimes your actions can play an even bigger role. That?s when we need to move from praise to encouragement. Though we tend to use the terms interchangeably, there is a difference between praise and encouragement. Praise simply acknowledges the things our kids are doing right. Encouragement is what keeps them doing those things and gives them the desire to do even more.

"Parents say, ?That was great? or ?Nice report card.? That?s praise," says Dr. Ferreira. "Encouragement, on the other hand, is the process that pulls someone in a direction."

When 12-year-old Teresa turned in a "pretty good" essay, her English teacher could have placed a grade at the top of the paper, marked the problem areas and moved on. But rather than focus on the paper?s weaknesses, the teacher used the opportunity to move beyond the mistakes by using praise.

"No one expects you to accomplish what you haven?t learned," the teacher told Teresa. "It?s my job to work with you until you understand just what I?m looking for in this paper."

The two tackled the essay one paragraph at a time. When Teresa completed each paragraph adequately, her teacher congratulated her, pointed out what she?d done well, then moved on. Teresa followed along willingly because she knew she couldn?t fail with her teacher by her side. The entire process took time, effort and commitment. But in the end, the effort paid off. Teresa produced a great paper and gained the confidence she needed for future classes.

Encouragement, by nature, involves creativity and sacrifice on your part. But the reward is children who feel good about who they are and confident about meeting the challenges they face.

Dig Deeper

Parents tend to focus their attention on the outward behavior of kids, good and bad. But it?s just as important to look beyond the behavior and see your child?s character: honesty, diligence, playfulness, respect, kindness. These inner qualities are essential for your child to grow into a mature, God-honoring adult.

Let?s say your son is racing through the house and accidentally knocks his little sister down. But before he dashes off, he turns back to help her up and brush her off. Although you do need to enforce rules like no running in the house, remember to commend your child for his thoughtfulness toward his sister.

Whenever you address your child?s behavior, ask yourself, "What am I affirming?" Think about the behavior traits that can draw out your words of approval or encouragement. Even when your child does something good, look beyond the work well done to find and encourage the character trait in your child that?s pleasing to God.

Leave an Impression

When you praise your kids, it?s not the words that mean the most. What?s even more important is the lasting impression you?re creating on your children?s lives. Knowing you think they?re great will carry them through hard times, loneliness, discouragement and failure. Someone once said, "They may not remember what you said, but they?ll always remember how you made them feel."

How can you leave such a lasting impression? Come up with your own unique style of praise and encouragement. One family designed a "Celebrating Our Family" bulletin board where they could post their children?s successes, triumphs, even struggles.

You might want to consider a family journal where you record your children?s interests and endeavors. Some families write letters to their graduating seniors and present the letters at special celebrations at the beach or a park.

Even parents who try to follow all these guidelines will blow it now and then. But it is possible to redeem yourself.

With my own son, I knew that vacuuming was less of an issue than his feelings of being unfairly treated and picked on.

"David," I told him. "I know you feel like you do more work than the others. I?m sorry you feel that way, and I really appreciate all the times you don?t complain."

His grunts, mumbles and a shoulder shrug that masqueraded as a hug told me I?d said enough.

Connie Arthur lives with her husband and four children in Escondido, California. She is a writer, speaker and teacher.

Elaine Minamide is a writer and English teacher from California where she lives with her husband and three children.

We'd really like to know what you think about this article!

Is this the kind of article you'd like to see more of?
Is there a topic you'd like us to cover?
Please send your suggestions to CPT@christianparenting.net

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Free CT Women Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: CT's weekly newsletter to help you make sense of how faith and family intersect with the world.

Read These Next


Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter

Follow Us

More Newsletters