I would like to bring awareness to the use of “praise” – Why? because I am passionate that the communication you have with your child brings you into a place of authentic connection and promotes your child’s freedom to learn. To do this I will clarify the key difference in generic and specific praise, as I feel this is where there is some confusion for parents and I would like to challenge our reasons for using praise.
GENERIC VS SPECIFIC PRAISE
Firstly, I know what you’re thinking, yes, we are absolutely and unequivocally our children’s number 1 fan and supporter! Every night I tuck my son up in bed and tell him how much he is loved and how proud I am of who he is. This, for me, is generic praise. I am praising him for WHO HE IS in this present moment. I am not wanting to promote an action or change, I am praising who he is now not who I want him to become.
Now, compare this to praise for a specific action. I will do this with a story. I observed some children throwing stones into a pond, they were happy and focused. Maybe they were testing different throwing techniques, maybe they were curious about the sound of the stones landing or the ripples on the water, who knows, they were absorbed, they were self-motivated and they were learning. Then, I observe the dad saying to his daughter “Good throw!”. This is specific praise, praise for a certain activity. What I observe next is the pitfall of praise and this is what I would like to bring your attention to.
The daughter then picks up another stone, throws it into the pond (whilst looking at her dad), and says “Was that a good throw Daddy?”. Can you see that her focus has been distracted from her throwing, which was intrinsically self-motivated, to getting a reward (attention, praise) that is externally motived?
WHAT IS OUR MOTIVATION FOR PRAISING?
Why are we praising a specific activity? To motivate, to support? Let us break this down. There is the basic misconception that children require motivation – I totally disagree. I firmly believe that children are born totally self-motivated and capable of directing their own learning, you only have to observe an infant progressing from laying to eventually walking, trying again and again, until each movement is mastered. They are focused, they are playful, they are learning, this learning is self-motivated and self-directed. The more you can move from teacher to observer the more you see it and the more you see it, the more fascinating and magical it becomes to observe it!
I will share another story to solidify my point. Two children are disagreeing over who can play with a toy. There are many ways we can support if two children are having a disagreement to support them in resolving their disagreement together without interfering, but these are out of the scope of this article. Needless to say that one child returned the toy to the other. The mother then says, “Well done, thanks for returning that toy.” What I then observed was that the child who returned the toy then picked up another toy, whilst looking at her mother and gave that to her playmate. Can you see again, the focus of the child has now moved away from her playmate and her learning of social skills to focus on a new game, that is externally focused on the parent and motivated by external recognition?
Let’s now look at support and encouragement – we want our children to know they are supported, in both scenarios how could you best support your child? I would boldly suggest that by simply observing nearby with our focused attention we are supporting.
Please do comment, I would love to get your feelings on this.