Clean your room! Get your homework done. Didn’t I tell you to clean your room? When are you going to get your homework done? In truth, we have all been there as parents. In frustrated efforts to encourage a child to complete tasks, the nagging parent we promised ourselves we would never be rears its ugly head. Somewhere, we realize it is not the best way to influence our child’s actions but bad habits, after all, are hard to break.
Step in Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., Director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic and one of the most proliferate researchers in the realm of psychology (http://alankazdin.com/). In his approach to parenting, Parent Management Training, Dr. Kazdin notes that praise can be one of the most effective means to alter behavior. In fact, incorporating small pieces into your praise can make huge differences.
The research identifies these components as essential to effective praise (http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/10/parenting.aspx; http://alankazdin.com.previewdns.com/pdfs/praise%20a%20child%20right_usnews.pdf):
1) Deliver praise when you are close to your child. When you are close, your child is more likely to be paying attention to what you are saying.
2) Get big with your praise! Enthusiasm is the key here. Think of your response to your child’s first training wheel free bike ride. Or, that not so little celebration you do when your favorite sports team wins the big game (the dance, smile and high five included). That is the ideal level of intensity to encourage your child to show the behavior again.
3) Be specific. When providing praise, say exactly what behavior you are noticing. The more specific, the better. It sounds like this, “Thank-you for being ready to leave for school on-time. Your coat is on and zipped up, your shoes are on your feet and tied and you have your backpack. Great job.”
4) The more immediate the praise, the more powerful it will be as the child will be able to connect the praise to the identified behavior.
5) Incorporate touch. The power of touch has been proven to impact our functioning and performance. A high-five, pat on the back or fist bump can ignite the neurons to solidify the behavior in ways verbal acknowledgement alone is not capable of doing (http://psych-your-mind.blogspot.com/2011/07/power-of-touch.html).
Let’s take a look at effective praise in action. Consider those nagging situations identified above. A parent walks into a child’s room as she sits on the floor in the middle of a pile of toys and clothes. But there, directly behind her is a well-made bed with stuffed animals aligned in a row. The parent promptly squats down to eye level with the child, with a nice smile and enthusiasm, and states, “That’s beautiful. Your comforter is nicely pulled up to the top of your bed with the pillows on top. And the stuffies are sitting there so sweetly.”
That’s it. N O T H I N G else. Fight against the urge to comment about the pile of dirty laundry. Walk out of the room if you have the need to point out again (nag) that the toys are scattered all over the room. These “caboose” comments tend to negate the power of the praise you just delivered. As humans, we tend to hold onto the negative more readily than the positive comments that we might receive throughout the day. Consider what a child’s experience might be if he or she could count on you “catching” what was done correct and knew a significant celebration would take place with each repeated demonstration of that behavior. Mull over the potential changes in your relationship with your child, his or her self-esteem or the way he or she perceives his or her ability to achieve goals in the future. Not to nag, but to solidify the point consider one of my favorite motivational quotes for parents:
The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice. (Peggy O’Mara)