How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

5| Praise

PART I

Once upon a time there were two seven-year-old boys named Bruce and David. They both had mothers who loved them very much.

Each boy’s day began differently. The first thing Bruce heard when he awakened in the morning was “Get up now, Bruce! You’re going to be late for school again.”

Bruce got up, dressed himself—except for his shoes—and came in for breakfast. Mother said, “Where are your shoes? Are you planning to go to school barefoot? . . . And look at what you’re wearing! That blue sweater looks awful with that green shirt. . . . Bruce dear, what have you done to your pants? They’re ripped. I want you to change them after breakfast. No child of mine is going to school with torn pants. . . . Now watch how you pour your juice. Don’t spill it the way you usually do!”

Bruce poured and spilled.

Mother was exasperated. As she mopped up the mess, she said, “I don’t know what to do with you.”

Bruce mumbled something to himself.

“What was that?” Mother asked. “There you go mumbling again.”

Bruce finished his breakfast in silence. Then he changed his pants, put on his shoes, collected his books, and left for school. His mother called out, “Bruce, you forgot your lunch! If your head weren’t screwed on to your shoulders, I bet you’d forget that, too.”

Bruce took his lunch, and as he started out the door again, Mother reminded him, “Now, be sure to behave at school today.”

David lived across the street. The first thing he heard in the morning was “Seven o’clock, David. Do you want to get up now or take five more minutes?” David rolled over and yawned. “Five more minutes,” he mumbled.

Later he came to breakfast dressed, except for his shoes. Mother said, “Hey, you’re dressed already. All you have left to put on are your shoes! . . . Uh-oh—there’s a rip in the seam of your pants. Looks as if the whole side could split. Shall I sew it on you while you stand up or would you rather change?” David thought a second and said, “I’ll change after breakfast.” Then he sat down at the table and poured his juice. He spilled some.

“The cleanup rag is in the sink,” Mother called over her shoulder as she continued making his lunch. David got the rag and wiped up the spill. They talked for a while as David ate his breakfast. When he was finished, he changed his pants, put on his shoes, collected his books, and left for school—without his lunch.

Mother called after him, “David, your lunch!”

He ran back to get it and thanked her. As she handed it to him she said, “See you later!”

Both Bruce and David had the same teacher. During the day the teacher told the class, “Children, as you already know, we’ll be putting on our Columbus Day play next week. We need a volunteer to paint a colorful welcome sign on our classroom door. We also need a volunteer to pour and serve the lemonade for our guests after the play. And, finally, we need someone who will go around to the other third-grade classes and make a short speech inviting everyone to our play and telling them the time, day, and place.”

Some of the children raised their hands immediately, some raised their hands tentatively, and some didn’t raise their hands at all.

Our story stops here. That’s all we know. About what happened afterward, we can only guess. But it certainly does leave us with food for thought. Take a moment now to consider these questions and answer them for yourself:

1. Would David be likely to raise his hand to volunteer?

2. Would Bruce?

3. What is the relationship between how children think of themselves and their willingness to accept challenges or risk failure?

4. What is the relationship between how children think of themselves and the kinds of goals they set for themselves?

Now that you’ve explored your own thoughts, I’d like to share mine with you. Granted, there are children who manage to brush off the belittling they get at home and still rise to the challenges of the outside world. And granted, there are some children who are treated with regard at home who still doubt their own abilities and shrink from challenge. However, it would seem logical that those children who grow up in families where their best is appreciated would be more likely to feel good about themselves, more likely to cope with the challenges of life, and more likely to set higher goals for themselves than those who don’t.

As Nathaniel Branden has said in his book The Psychology of Self-Esteem, “There is no value judgment more important to man, no factor more decisive in his psychological development and motivation—than the estimate he passes on himself. . . . The nature of his self-evaluation has profound effects on a man’s thinking processes, emotions, desires, values and goals. It is the single most significant key to his behavior.”

If a child’s self-esteem is so important, then what can we as parents do to enhance it? Certainly all the principles and skills we’ve talked about so far can help a child see himself as a person of worth. Each time we show respect for his feelings, each time we offer him a chance to make a choice, or give him a chance to solve a problem, he grows in confidence and self-esteem.

How else can we help our children build a positive and realistic self-image? Surely praising them would seem to be another part of the answer. But praise can be tricky business. Sometimes the most well-meant praise brings about unexpected reactions.

See for yourself if this is so. In the following exercise you’ll find a description of four different hypothetical situations in which someone praises you. Please read each situation and jot down your reactions to the praise you received.

Situation I: You have an unexpected guest for dinner. You heat a can of cream of chicken soup, add some leftover chicken, and serve it over Minute Rice.

Your guest says, “You’re a great cook!”

Your inner reaction:

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Situation II: You just changed out of your sweater and jeans into a new outfit to go to an important meeting.

An acquaintance approaches you, looks you over, and says, “You’re always so beautifully dressed.”

Your inner reaction:

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Situation III: You’re taking an adult-education course. After a lively class discussion in which you participate, another student comes up to you and says, “You have a brilliant mind.”

Your inner reaction:

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Situation IV: You’ve just started learning how to play tennis and, hard as you try, you still aren’t making any progress with your serve. The ball usually goes into the net or off the court. Today you’re playing doubles with a new partner, and your first serve lands where you hope it will.

Your partner comments, “Hey, you’ve got a perfect serve.”

Your inner reaction:

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You’ve probably discovered for yourself some of the built-in problems of praise. Along with some good feelings can come other reactions:

Praise can make you doubt the praiser. (“If she thinks I’m a good cook, she’s either lying or knows nothing about good food.”)

Praise can lead to immediate denial. (“Always beautifully dressed! . . . You should have seen me an hour ago.”)

Praise can be threatening. (“But how will I look at the next meeting?”)

Praise can force you to focus on your weaknesses (“Brilliant mind? Are you kidding? I still can’t add a column of figures.”)

Praise can create anxiety and interfere with activity. (“I’ll never be able to hit the ball like that again. Now I’m really uptight.”)

Praise can also be experienced as manipulation. (“What does this person want from me?”)

I remember my own frustrations whenever I tried to praise my children. They’d come to me with a painting and ask, “Is it good?”

I’d say, “What a beautiful painting.”

They’d ask, “But is it good?

I’d say, “Good? I told you it’s beautiful . . . fantastic!”

They’d say, “You don’t like it.”

The more extravagantly I praised, the less I got through. I never understood their reactions.

After my first few sessions with Dr. Ginott, I began to realize why my children rejected my praise as fast as I gave it. He taught me that words that evaluate—good, beautiful, fantastic—made my children as uncomfortable as you probably felt in the exercise you just did. But, most important, I learned from him that helpful praise actually comes in two parts:

1. The adult describes with appreciation what he or she sees or feels.

2. The child, after hearing the description, is then able to praise himself.

I recall the first time I tried putting that theory into practice. My four-year-old came home from nursery school, shoved a page of penciled scribble under my nose, and asked, “Is it good?”

My first reaction was an automatic “Very good.” Then I remembered. No, I’ve got to describe. I wondered, How do you describe scribble?

I said, “Well, I see you went circle, circle, circle . . . wiggle, wiggle, wiggle . . . dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, and slash, slash!

“Yeah!” he nodded enthusiastically.

I said, “How did you ever think to do this?”

He thought awhile. “Because I’m an artist,” he said.

I thought, “It’s a remarkable process. The adult describes, and the child really does praise himself.”

On the next page you’ll find more examples of how descriptive praise works.

DESCRIPTIVE PRAISE.

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I must confess that in the beginning I was dubious about this new method of praise. Even though it had worked for me once, the very thought of having to change to a descriptive style of praising irritated me. Why should I have to give up “Great . . . wonderful . . . terrific,” which came so naturally to me, and find another way to express my honest enthusiasm?

But I tried anyway, dutifully at first, and after a while I noticed that the children really did begin to praise themselves. For example:

ME: (instead of “Jill, you’re terrific”) You figured out that the cans of corn on sale—the three-for-a-dollar ones—are actually more expensive than the brands that aren’t on sale. I’m impressed.

JILL: (grinning) I got “the smarts.”

ME: (instead of “Andy, you’re great”) That was a complicated phone message you took from Mrs. Vecchio. It was written so clearly, I knew exactly why the meeting was postponed, who I had to call, and what I had to tell them.

ANDY: Yeah, I’m a pretty dependable kid.

There was no doubt about it. The children were becoming more aware and appreciative of their own strengths. This alone was an incentive for me to continue making an effort. And it was an effort. It’s a lot easier to say “Wonderful” about something, than to really look at it, and experience it, and then describe it in detail.

In this next exercise you’ll have a chance to practice using descriptive praise. As you read about each situation take time out to picture in your mind exactly what it is your child has done. Then describe, in detail, what you see or what you feel.

Situation I: A young child has just dressed herself for the first time. She stands in front of you, hoping you’ll notice.

Praise unhelpfully:

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Praise by describing in detail what you see or feel:

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What might the child say to herself?

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Situation II: You’ve been invited to see your child in a school play. He or she plays the part of king, queen, or witch. (Choose one.) After the show, your youngster comes running up to you and asks, “Was I good?”

Praise unhelpfully:

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Praise by describing in detail what you saw or what you felt:

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What might the child say to himself?

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Situation III: You notice that your child’s schoolwork is improving in small ways. His compositions now have margins. He’s been drilling himself on his vocabulary words until he knows them. His last report was finished one day ahead of time.

Praise unhelpfully:

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Praise by describing in detail what you see or what you feel:

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What might the child say to himself?

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Situation IV: You’ve been sick in bed for a few days. Your child has drawn you a get-well card decorated with balloons and hearts. She hands it to you and waits for your response.

Praise unhelpfully:

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Praise by describing in detail what you see or what you feel:

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What might your child say to herself?

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Having done this exercise, you’re probably more clear now on how children experience evaluative praise:

“You’re a good girl.”

“You’re a great actor.”

“You’re finally becoming an excellent student.”

“You’re so thoughtful.”

You’re probably also clear about how they feel themselves when they hear praise that describes their achievement:

“I see you put your shirt on with the tag in the back; you zipped your pants; you put on matching socks; and you buckled your shoes. What a lot of different things you did!”

“You were such a regal queen! You stood tall and straight, and when you gave your big speech your voice filled the auditorium.”

“Seems to me you’re putting extra effort into your schoolwork these days. I notice your compositions have margins, your reports are done ahead of time, and you’ve worked out a way to teach yourself vocabulary.”

“I love these yellow balloons and red hearts. They cheer me up. I feel better already, just looking at them.”

There is another way to praise that also uses description. The additional element here is that we add to the description one or two words that sum up the child’s praiseworthy behavior.

SUMMING UP IN A WORD

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For your own practice, complete the sentence by filling 
in the missing word or words in the drawings on this page.

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Some possible ways to complete the sentence in:

Drawing 1. “Determination” or “willpower” or “self-control.”

Drawing 2. “Flexible” or “resourceful” or “adaptable.”

Drawing 3. “Friendship” or “loyalty” or “courage.”

There’s nothing sacred about any of the words listed above. And again there are no right or wrong answers. The point is to find a word that will tell a youngster something about himself that he may not have known before—to give him a new verbal snapshot of himself.

What I personally like about this way to praise is that it’s so “doable.” It’s a matter of really looking, really listening, really noticing, and then saying aloud what you see and what you feel.

One wonders how such a simple process can have such a profound effect. And yet day after day from our small descriptions our children learn what their strengths are: A child finds out that he can take a confusing mess of a room and turn it into a neat, orderly room; that he can make a gift that’s useful and gives pleasure; that he can hold the attention of an audience; that he can write a poem that’s moving; that he is capable of being punctual, of exercising willpower, of showing initiative, resourcefulness. All of that goes into his emotional bank, and it can’t be taken away. You can take away “good boy” by calling him “bad boy” the next day. But you can’t ever take away from him the time he cheered his mother with a get-well card, or the time he stuck with his work and persevered even though he was very tired.

These moments, when his best was affirmed, become life-long touchstones to which a child can return in times of doubt or discouragement. In the past he did something he was proud of. He has it within him to do it again.

ASSIGNMENT

1. A quality I like about my child is:

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2. Something he or she has done recently that I appreciated but never mentioned is:

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3. What could I say to show my appreciation to him (or her), using the skills of descriptive praise?

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4. Read Part II of “Praise.”

A Quick Reminder . . .

Praise and Self-Esteem

Instead of Evaluating 
(“Good” . . . “Great!” . . . “Fantastic!”),
Describe.

1. DESCRIBE WHAT YOU SEE.

“I see a clean floor, a smooth bed, and books neatly 
lined up on the shelf.”

2. DESCRIBE WHAT YOU FEEL.

“It’s a pleasure to walk into this room!”

3. SUM UP THE CHILD’S PRAISEWORTHY BEHAVIOR WITH A WORD.

“You sorted out your Legos, cars, and farm animals, 
and put them in separate boxes. That’s what I call 
organization!”

PART II: COMMENTS, QUESTIONS, AND 
PARENTS’ STORIES

We’ve often noticed that parents in our groups will tell one another enthusiastically about something one of their children just did:

“For three days now Donny has been setting his alarm and getting himself up in the morning. I’m so glad not to be involved anymore.”

“Recently Lisa has been calling home when she knows she’s going to be late. I can’t tell you how much that means to me!”

When we asked these parents whether their children were aware of their appreciation, they often looked blank.

It seems that praise for helpful behavior doesn’t come readily. Most of us are quick to criticize and slow to praise. We have a responsibility as parents to reverse this order. Our children’s self-esteem is too valuable to be left to chance or entrusted to strangers. You may have noticed yourself that the outside world doesn’t rush in to offer praise. When is the last time another driver said to you, “Thank you for only taking up one parking space. Now I have room for my car”? Our efforts to be cooperative are taken for granted. One slipup, and condemnation is swift.

Let us be different in our homes. Let us realize that, along with food, shelter, and clothing, we have another obligation to our children, and that is to affirm their “rightness.” The whole world will tell them what’s wrong with them—loud and often. Our job is to let our children know what’s right about them.

Some Cautions About Praise

1. Make sure your praise is appropriate to your child’s age and level of ability. When a very young child is told with pleasure, “I see you’re brushing your teeth every day,” he experiences pride in his accomplishment. Were you to tell the same thing to a teenager, he might feel insulted.

2. Avoid the kind of praise that hints at past weaknesses or past failures:

“Well, you finally played that piece of music the way it should be played!”

“You look so nice today. What did you do to yourself?”

“I never thought you’d pass that course—but you did!”

It’s always possible to rephrase your praise so that the focus is on the child’s present strength:

“I really like the way you kept a strong, rhythmic beat going in that piece.”

“It’s a pleasure to look at you.”

“I know you put in a lot of work to pass that course.”

3. Be aware that excessive enthusiasm can interfere with a child’s desire to accomplish for herself. Sometimes parents’ continual excitement or intense pleasure in their child’s activity can be experienced by the child as pressure. A young person who gets daily doses of “You’re such a gifted pianist! You should be playing at Carnegie Hall” may think to herself, “They want it for me more than I want it for myself.”

4. Be prepared for a lot of repetition of the same activity when you describe what a child is doing appreciatively. If you don’t want him to blow the whistle five more times, then refrain from saying, “You certainly know how to make a big noise with that whistle!” If you don’t want her to climb to the top of the jungle gym, don’t tell her, “You really know how to use your climbing muscles.” There’s no doubt about it. Praise invites repetition and a great outpouring of effort. It’s potent stuff. Use it selectively.

Questions

1. I’m trying to learn to praise differently, but sometimes I forget and “great” or “fantastic” slips out. What can I do?

Please allow yourself your initial reaction. If you’re feeling genuinely enthusiastic and find yourself exclaiming, “Great!” the child will hear the enthusiasm in your voice and experience it as an expression of your feelings. However, you can always enrich your initial reaction with the kind of description that helps a child know the extent of your appreciation: “There I was, tired out after a long day at work, and I came home to find the whole yard raked clean, with all the leaves bagged and put up front. I feel like a lucky dad!”

With a little specific description, you’ve just improved upon “Great.”

2. How do you praise a child for finally doing what he should have been doing all along?

My older boy is usually so obnoxious when we go for a ride with the family that we’re all miserable. Last week he behaved beautifully. I didn’t want to tell him he was “good” or that he was “finally acting like a human being,” and yet I did want to give him recognition for his behavior. How could I have done it without putting him down?

You’re always on safe ground when you make a descriptive statement to a child about your own feelings. You can tell him, “I especially enjoyed our trip today.”

He’ll know why.

3. Is it all right to praise a child by saying, “I’m so proud of you”?

Suppose you had studied for a difficult and important test for a week. When the marks came back, you discovered that you not only passed but did very well. When you called a friend to tell her the good news, she said, “I’m so proud of you!”

What is your reaction? We suspect that you’d feel that somehow the emphasis had been shifted from your accomplishment to her pride. Chances are you’d much rather have heard something like “What an achievement! You must be so proud of yourself!”

4. Last week when my son won a swimming award, I told him, “I’m not surprised. I knew all along you could do it.” He looked at me strangely. I thought I was boosting his confidence; did I say something wrong?

When a parent says, “I knew all along you could do it,” he’s giving credit to his own omniscience rather than to his child’s achievements. The child might even think, “How come my father knew I’d win? I didn’t know.”

It would be more helpful to the child to hear his accomplishments described: “That award represents months of practice and a lot of determination!”

5. My son gets plenty of praise from me, and yet he’s still fearful of risking failure. He goes to pieces if something he attempts doesn’t turn out right. Is there anything I can do?

There are a number of ways that you could be helpful to him:

1. When he’s upset, don’t minimize his distress. (“There’s nothing to be upset about.”) Instead, bring out into the open what you think he might be feeling.

“It can be frustrating to work on a project for so long and not have it come out the way you want!”

When his frustration is understood, a child tends to relax inside.

2. It helps when a parent can be accepting of his child’s mistakes and view them as an important part of the learning process.

It can even be pointed out that a mistake can be a discovery. It can tell you something you never knew before:

“You found out that a soft-boiled egg can become hard just from sitting in hot water.”

3. It also helps if parents can be accepting of their own mistakes.

When parents “beat up” on themselves (“I forgot my key again. What is the matter with me? That was such a dumb thing to do! How could I be so stupid? I’ll never learn.”), children conclude that this is the proper way to treat themselves when they make mistakes.

Instead, let us provide a more humane, solution-oriented model for our children. When we do something we wish we hadn’t, let’s seize the opportunity to say aloud to ourselves:

“Oh, heck, I wish I hadn’t forgotten that key . . . It’s the second time . . . What can I do to make sure it doesn’t happen again? . . . I know, I’ll have a duplicate key made up and keep it in a secret place.”

By being kind to ourselves, we teach our children to be kind to themselves.

When Parents Praise

One evening several parents were talking about how easy it was to take a child’s good behavior for granted, and what an effort it required to make an appreciative comment. They decided to assign themselves the task of looking actively for, and commenting on, anything positive their children did, instead of letting it slip by. One mother came up with the following list of things she normally would never have mentioned to her five-year-old:

This week Paul learned the word “evaporation” and the concept of it.

He played with a seven-month-old infant with gentleness.

He gave me privacy and quiet after I told him how much I needed it.

He expressed his anger in words.

Another mother told us:

Yesterday Joshua (age three and three-quarters) wanted me to read a story to him as we were on our way out. When I told him I didn’t have the time to read, because we had to leave, he said to me, “I didn’t mean read to me before we go. I meant after we come home.”

I said to him, “Joshua, you really know the difference between before and after!”

Joshua replied proudly, “Yup!” Then he thought awhile and said, “And I know when I want a cookie. Before dinner!”

Here’s another example from a father who decided to start validating his seven-year-old daughter’s strengths. One morning he told her:

“I see a girl who can get up in the morning all by herself, eat breakfast, get washed and dressed, and be ready for school on time. Now that’s what I call self-reliance!”

A few days later when she was brushing her teeth, she called her father over and pointed to her mouth. “Now, that’s what I call clean teeth!” she said.

Several parents also began to notice how often praise seemed to motivate their children to want to be more cooperative, to work harder than ever. Here are their experiences:

My husband and I wanted to sleep late on a Sunday morning, and our two children did not come in to wake us as usual. When I awoke I went in to them and said, “Brynn (she’s six), it must have been so difficult for you to stay out of Mommy and Daddy’s room. That took a lot of willpower!”

Brynn said to me, “I know what willpower is! That means when you want to wake up your mommy and daddy but you know you shouldn’t. So you don’t.

“Now I’m going to set the table and make breakfast!”

And she did.

Michael called me in to show me that he made his bed for the first time. He was jumping up and down with excitement. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the spread didn’t cover the pillows or that it was dragging on the floor on one side and short on the other. I just said, “Wow, you got the spread to cover most of the bed!”

The next morning he called me in again and said, “See, I got it to cover the pillow, too. And I made the sides even!”

It was amazing to me. I always thought that for a child to improve you had to point out what they did wrong. But by my telling Michael what he did right he seemed to want to improve on his own.

It bothered me that Hans never takes initiative for doing any job around the house. By the age of nine, I feel he should be taking more responsibility.

Tuesday night I asked him to set the table. Usually he needs constant prodding to finish a task, but this time he did it all with no reminders. I said to my husband, within earshot of Hans, “Frank, did you see what Hans did? He got the placemats out, the dishes, the salad bowl, the napkins, the silverware, and he even remembered your beer! That’s really taking full responsibility.” There was no apparent reaction from Hans.

Later when I went upstairs to put my younger son to bed, I asked Hans to come up in fifteen minutes. He said, “Okay.”

In fifteen minutes he was up and in bed. I said, “I asked you to come up and be in bed in fifteen minutes and here you are—exactly on time. That’s what I call being a person of your word.” Hans smiled.

The next day Hans came into the kitchen before supper and said, “Mom, I came to set the table.”

I was thunderstruck. I said, “You came before I called you. I really appreciate that!”

Since then I’ve been noticing scattered instances of change. One morning he made the bed without being asked; another morning he dressed before breakfast. It seems the more I look for the best in him, the easier it is for him to be better.

I used to operate on the reward system. Whenever I was worried that Melissa might not behave, I’d say, “If you’re good, I’ll buy you ice cream or a new toy or—whatever.” Melissa would be good that one time, but then I had to promise her another reward for the next time.

Recently I’ve stopped saying, “If you’re good, I’ll . . .” Instead, I say, “Melissa, it would be helpful to me if . . .” And when she does do something helpful, I try to describe it back to her.

For example, last weekend I told her that it would be helpful if she made her grandparents feel welcome when they visited. When they came on Sunday, she was terrific with them. After they left I told her, “Melissa, you made Granny and Pop so happy when they were here. You told them jokes, offered them some of your trick-or-treat candy, and you showed them your gum-wrapper collection. That’s what I call hospitality!” Melissa 
just glowed.

With the old way, she felt good for the moment because she got a reward. With this new way, she feels good about herself as a person.

Often children can use praise at the very times that we’re least likely to give it to them—when they’re not doing especially well. In these next two examples you’ll see parents praising under difficult circumstances.

Last year (in third grade) Lisa’s penmanship was awful. The teacher mentioned it to me. I felt as if I myself had been criticized. I began to point out to Lisa, every night, how sloppy her homework was and how poorly formed her letters were.

A few months later, Lisa wrote a note to the teacher saying how much she liked her. The note wasn’t signed. When I mentioned to Lisa that she forgot to sign the note, she said, “The teacher will know it’s from me, because of the bad handwriting.”

My heart sank! The child said it so matter-of-factly, because she had accepted the fact that her writing was poor and nothing could be done.

After reading Liberated Parents/Liberated Children, I began all over. Each night that Lisa showed me her homework, instead of criticizing I would find one neat sentence, or one word, or at least one neat letter and comment on it. After a few months of no criticizing, and a little deserved praise, her handwriting has improved 100 percent!

This was one day I was glad for whatever skills I knew. I was driving home with my children—two, six, and nine years old. Jennifer, my six-year-old, decided to open up a big plastic bowl of popcorn—which, of course, she spilled all over the car. All kinds of responses went through my hassled brain: “Greedy kid . . . couldn’t you wait till we got home . . . now look at what you’ve done!”

Instead, I just described the problem in a matter-of-fact voice. I said, “Popcorn is all over the car. That needs a vacuum.”

When we arrived home, Jennifer immediately went into the house to get the vacuum cleaner out of my room. However, nothing ever goes smoothly. When Jennifer took out the vacuum cleaner, she knocked over a plant and there was dirt all over my bedroom. This was too much for a six-year-old to handle. She completely broke down in hysterical tears.

For a moment I didn’t know what to do. Then I tried to reflect her feelings: “This is just too much! . . . How frustrating!” and so on, and so on. She eventually calmed down enough to tackle the car, but the thought of the bedroom was still too much.

She cleaned the car and called me out to see it. Instead of evaluating her, I observed, “There was popcorn all over the car and now I don’t see one piece.”

She was so pleased with herself, she said, “And now I’m going to clean your bedroom.”

“Oh, I see,” I said, rejoicing inside.

A few parents found that it was even possible to use praise at the most unlikely times—when their children did something they shouldn’t. Instead of scolding the children, they inspired them to do better by reminding them of their past praiseworthy behavior. Here’s one mother’s account:

When Karen told me she lost her subway pass and that she thought it fell out of her pocket, my first impulse was to bawl her out for being so careless. But she looked so miserable that I said, “Come to think of it, Karen, you’ve held on to your subway pass for the last three and a half terms of high school. That’s a lot of days of being responsible.”

Karen said, “I guess so. But still I’m not taking any more chances. When I get my new one, I’m keeping it in my wallet.”

Another dividend that came from descriptive praise was the courage it seemed to generate in some children. The following experiences illustrate what we mean:

Kristin is eight, and as far back as I can remember she has always been afraid of the dark. She’d jump out of bed a dozen times after we put her to sleep to go to the bathroom, to get a drink of water, or just to make sure we were there.

Last week her report card arrived. It was full of praise. She spent the whole day admiring it and reading it over to herself again and again. Just before bedtime she said to me, quoting her report card, “A girl who is responsible, who works well with others, who obeys the rules, who is respectful of others, who reads fourth-grade books but is only in third grade—she won’t be afraid of what’s not there!I’m going to sleep.”

She went to bed that night and I didn’t see her until the next morning.

I can’t wait to see the teacher on Open School Night to let him know what his words meant to one little girl.

Brian is nine years old and has always been shy and lacking in confidence. I’ve been listening to his feelings a lot lately, trying not to give him advice—the way I always do—and giving him lots of praise instead. Two days ago we had this conversation:

BRIAN: Mom, I’m having problems with Mrs. I. She’s always picking on me and making remarks to the class about me.

MOM: Oh.

BRIAN: Yes, you know when I got my hair cut she said, “Look, class, we have a new boy in school.”

MOM: Hmmm.

BRIAN: And then when I wore my new checkered pants she said, “Oh, look at Mr. Fancy Pants.”

MOM: (unable to resist) Do you think you should have a talk with her?

BRIAN: I already did. I asked her, “How come you always seem to be picking on me?” She said, “One more crack like that and I’ll send you to the headmaster’s office.”

      Mommy, I felt so low. What can I do? If I go to the headmaster and tell him, she’ll really be on my back.

MOM: Hmmm.

BRIAN: Well, maybe I’ll stick it out. There are only thirty more days left.

MOM: That’s true.

BRIAN: No, I just can’t stand it. I think you’d better go up to school with me.

MOM: Brian, I think you’re mature enough to handle this situation. I have great confidence in you. Chances are you’ll do the right thing. (kiss and hug
The next day:

BRIAN: Mommy, I feel so good about myself. I went to the headmaster and he said I had courage to come to him, and he was glad that I was strong enough to, and he was glad I thought enough of him to share my problem with him. That’s why he’s there, you know!

MOM: You handled that difficult situation all by yourself!

BRIAN: (looking ten feet tall) Yeah!

This final example shows the inspirational effects a coach’s descriptive praise had on a young soccer team. After each game, each member of the team of nine- and ten-year-olds would receive a letter from him. Here are excerpts from three of those letters:

September 16

Dear Tomahawks,

Sunday you were nothing short of a POWERHOUSE. On offense we exploded for six goals, the most for any game this year. On defense we kept the ball in their end of the field all game, with their only goal coming when the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt.

Practice will be Saturday, Willets Field, 10:00–11:15 A.M. See you then.

Sincerely,

Bob Gordon

Coach

October 23

Dear Tomahawks:

WHAT A GAME! WHAT A TEAM!

Not only did our “orange-crush” defense shut out one of the top scoring teams in the league, but you also held them to only a few good shots on goal. Our offensive attack was really balanced, with five players scoring goals. More importantly, many of these goals were the result of good passing and good position-playing. This victory was truly a team victory, with everyone making important contributions.

We are still in second place, one point behind the Poncas, with two games remaining. However, no matter how we finish, you can all be proud of the way you played this season.

We have our usual practice on Saturday at Willets Field, 10:00–11:15 A.M.

See you then.

Sincerely,

Bob Gordon

Coach

November 18

Dear CHAMPIONS:

This weekend’s games were the most exciting I have ever seen. All during the year the Tomahawks have shown their great offense and their great defense. This weekend they showed their great heart and fighting spirit. Even though time appeared to be running out, you never gave up and you came away with a thrilling victory you so richly deserved.

Congratulations to all of you: you are champions one and all.

Sincerely,

Bob Gordon

Coach