The power of positive parenting might be more effective than you think. “Catch-em being good” has repeatedly been shown to improve positive behavior in kids. While we know this is true, most of us could probably find negative things to say to our children all day long—and the negative comments might be “well deserved.” As parents we often find ourselves chiding our children with “motivational” gabs like:
“I told you to get up ten minutes ago; what’s wrong with you?”
”How many times do I have to tell you to pick your stuff up out of the living room?”
“What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”
While these statements might feel like they will motivate you child to change, they very rarely do. Parental reactions like these don’t create an environment where your child is free to grow and learn. In fact, this tactic creates an atmosphere where your child may feel unsafe, unloved, and afraid. Additionally, you are modeling behavior you wouldn’t want your child to replicate.
No matter what your children do, it is important for you to remember they are still growing in their ability to manage thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Your job, as a parent, is to create an environment where your children can repeatedly attempt to grow and change without fear because they know they are loved, accepted, and appreciated just as they are.
If you want your children to become their best selves, you need to focus on the things they are doing right or have the potential to do right. Once you identify those things, you need to consistently reinforce your children for doing these things or attempting to do these things.
Willing to give being positive a try? Here are a few strategies which can help you focus on what your child is doing right (and probably increase the things they are doing right as well).
Paint a Picture of Who They Are Created to Be
Children rely upon the adults in their world to tell them both who they are and who they are going to be. By painting a picture of the people you believe they are capable of becoming, you help them to see this as possible. When you see your children as competent, caring, and capable individuals and begin telling them how you see them being these things, you invite them to become something they might never have considered possible.
Don’t wait until your children get it right before you compliment them. Look for ways to praise hard work and effort instead of simply praising outcomes. When you encourage effort and determination you are both encouraging the development of these characteristics and letting them know they are valued for who they are rather than simply for doing things right. When your children tries to do something new or do something differently than they have done it in the past, notice that they have tried and let them know you saw it and you are proud of them for attempting.
Praise Specific Qualities
It is easy to say “great job” or “you’re wonderful” but this doesn’t mean as much as when you praise (or criticize) something specific. Think about how much you appreciate specific, concrete feedback about what you do right in your job. Look for specific things your child is doing that you would want them to do more of and comment on those things.
Develop Positive Vocabulary
Words matter and words carry weight. We intuitively know this and want to be sure we say the right thing in the right way. When we are unsure of our ability to do this, we often resort to saying nothing at all. Silence leaves children wondering what we are thinking and to filling in the dead space with what they are afraid we might be thinking. You don’t have to be a Hallmark writer to encourage your children.
Try phrases like:
I love the way you …
I noticed you were working hard to …
Thank you for …
You helped me learn …
Make positive a habit
We establish routines for the things we know are important in our lives and in the lives of our children. We make sure children brush their teeth, take a shower and do their homework every day because these things are important.
Establishing time each day to tell your children what you appreciate about them and what you appreciate about the things they have done will help you to develop the habit of affirming your children. Taking time each day to do this doesn’t mean it is insincere but that you value it enough to take time, think about what you are going to say, and make sure they get to hear what you are thinking.
Every human being—no matter their age—loves to have their efforts acknowledged and will engage in more of any behavior that produces acknowledgement. Investing energy into noticing and affirming behaviors and qualities we appreciate about our children invites them to invest more energy into those behaviors and qualities, so they get more attention and affirmation. Try it out!
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and Clinic Manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.