But what if, despite our best intentions, we are doing the right thing the wrong way?
Following in the footsteps of their mothers, parenting and education experts Joanna Faber and Julie King have written a must-read book on communicating with young children. Included is an important section on praise that closely mirrors our philosophy here at One with the Water.
In short, praise that judges or evaluates can create problems. It can make us focus on our weaknesses rather than our strengths. It can make us doubt someone’s sincerity, or even dismissive and threatening. How do we avoid these dangerous pitfalls in praising our children?
Four Tools for Effective Praise
There are four basic tools you can use for praising your child effectively. When used correctly, you can increase their confidence and courage in a healthy way.
First: Describe what you see with your five senses. Whether it be an art piece, an activity, or even the effort produced. Avoid using a nonspecific phrase like “good job,” which is situation dependent. Instead, describe the action with positive language, letting the child know you noticed and appreciated his or her work and building a specific memory of success that can be repeated.
At One with the Water, we praise kids for their efforts and achievements, not their personality attributes. ~ Coach Rippetoe
We try to refrain from telling anyone, “good job,” in our swimming lessons. If we have several students, one more advanced, and the beginner hears me telling the advanced student, “good job,” after completing a skill they’ve practiced for years, that student might self-evaluate and question their ability. If I told them, “good job,” yet they struggled with the skill and didn’t look anything like Michael Phelps, it completely defeats the progress we’ve made and we have failed them as a coach.
Second: Describe the effect of their actions on others. Rather than judge their character (good girl, best big brother, nicest person, etc.) talk about the positive consequences of their actions on others. Connecting praise to character and behavior that can change – sometimes from hour to hour – sets a child up to have unrealistic expectations for themselves and can even heighten their sense of failure when behavior inevitably changes.
Third: Describe their effort. Studies have shown when EFFORT rather than OUTCOME is praised, children are more likely to take on more challenging tasks, and the subsequent outcomes improve for the group whose effort is praised. In contrast, the group whose outcomes were praised did worse in attempting and succeeding at more challenging problems. “You worked so hard to master that stroke” is far more effective than “You’re such a good swimmer.”
Fourth: Describe progress: “With descriptive praise, we can point out progress in a way that feels supportive and genuine.” (From How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen). The reality is our kids won’t get it right every time. Remember to focus on accomplishments before noting mistakes or unfinished work. And remember, the rule of thumb is to provide three positive statements for every negative statement. (Pro tip: This works on spouses, too! At our house, we like to call it the compliment sandwich.)
At the end of the day, by praising descriptively, we are holding up a mirror to show them their strengths.
Behavior-based praise can be invalidated by one bad day, one bad moment. Instead, let’s take the opportunity to provide our children with memories of effort and work done well that can be drawn upon in new and harder situations.
At One with the Water, that is always our goal, to teach our athletes courage and confidence in all areas of their life. Our swimmers understand that they can do anything that they put their mind to. They can become “One with the Water.” We believe in empowering our athletes with confidence and accomplishment, and we know you do too!
You can help us help them, did you know that? As a non-profit, we accept grants and donations from community organizations, local businesses, and private donors. We offer need-based scholarships to persons with mental or physical challenges, including Service-Disabled Veterans, as well as to families struggling financially. If you want to give the gift of better health and increased self-confidence, consider donating to the One with the Water Foundation.
We know you want to be compassionate, involved members of your community. When you donate to One with the Water, you create real and lasting change in the lives of our athletes. They are confident, courageous, successful, and safe, thanks to you!
Want more details? Visit our foundation page to be a hero.
*You can purchase the book, How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen using our Amazon Smile page, and a portion of the proceeds goes right back to the One with the Water Foundation.
Molly is a member of our creative team, mom of four water-loving babies, and a fierce advocate for CPR training and really early swim instruction.