Shaya Hecht, LMSW, CASAC-TNEFESH International Publications and Information
Praise can be a very effective tool in reinforcing your child’s actions. Many parents seem to be resistant to praising their child, arguing that: “Praise doesn’t work… I don’t want to praise him too much because then he/she will get spoiled… I sound like a broken record when I tell my child “good job” every few minutes…” and similar excuses.
It is important to note that although praise is effective in managing children’s behavior, the agent of positive change is the quality of the praise, and not the quantity. So yes, it’s true – robotic repetitions of “great job” might very well be ineffective. Instead, parents should be careful to praise the specific behavior that the child is doing well.
Moishe is a 9-year-old boy who constantly gets into physical fights with his younger sister when walking to shul on Shabbos. One Shabbos, Moishe manages to walk all the way to shul without any conflict with his younger sister. After arriving at shul, Moishe’s mother says, “Moishe, you didn’t get into any fights with your younger sister the entire walk to shul! I’m so proud of you!”
After shul, Moishe’s mother informs her husband that Moishe walked all the way without any fights! Moishe’s father responds, “Moishe, you are such a good boy!”
After havdalah, Moishe’s mother immediately calls Bubby to share the great news. Moishe’s Bubby is thrilled! She asks to speak with Moishe and says, “Moishe, I’m so happy to hear that this week you walked all the way to shul without fighting with your sister. Great job! Why can’t you do that every week?”
In the above vignette, both of Moishe’s parents and Bubby praised Moishe in an effort to improve his behavior when walking to shul on Shabbos. However, one of the three forms of praise is likely to be more effective in helping Moishe keep his hands to himself next week. Let’s analyze the three praises:
After praising Moishe, Bubby added: “Why can't you do that every week?”. Qualifying praise with an inherent criticism minimizes the effectiveness of the praise. Child behavior expert Dr. Alan Kazdin refers to this qualification as “caboosing.” Praise the behavior – and stop there.
In contrast, Moishe’s father did not qualify or caboose his praise with criticism. However, it lost its effectiveness since he praised Moishe’s general qualities and not the specific behavior that needs to be improved. Making general statements like “good boy” or “you make me so proud” or “you’re so smart” does not teach children that they behaved well.
The most effective praise in this scenario was Moishe’s mother’s, being that she praised the specific behavior that she would like to see more of, and did not use general or qualified praise.
In my practice, I often find that parents are reluctant to praise their child, because they fear that a lot of praise will spoil them. If you are a parent struggling with managing your child’s oppositional or defiant behavior, please take a moment and think about how often you respond with criticism to your child’s negative behavior. If you are like most parents, you probably spend a lot more time and energy responding to your child’s disruptive behavior than to his/her good behavior. In general, we tend to focus much more on negative behavior than we do on the positive. You may be thinking, “Well, that’s because my child rarely behaves well!” While it may certainly seem that way, it is important to “catch your child being good.” If you pay close attention to your child’s behavior, you will likely find that there are many instances in which he is behaving well. It is crucial that you capitalize on these occurrences and use them as opportunities for praise.
Case in point:
Mrs. Gross came to me reporting that her son, Yekutiel, never listens to anything she says. After assessment of how often Mrs. Gross praises her son, she admitted that she rarely does so, since “he NEVER listens.” I asked her how Yekutiel would respond if she asked him to get ice cream out of the freezer, so that she could scoop some out for him. She chuckled and replied that of course Yekutiel would listen to her if she asked him that.
Praising Yekutiel for listening to Mommy when she asked him to get ice cream would be an example of when Mrs. Gross can “catch him being good.” Once Mrs. Gross started to pay close attention to her son’s behavior, she found that there most certainly were many other occasions in which she was able to catch him being good. It wasn’t long before Yekutiel became more compliant overall to his mother’s commands.
Shaya Hecht, LMSW,CASAC-T is an associate in private practice at JF Counseling, providing psychotherapy to children, adolescents, and adults in Brooklyn and Queens, NY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.