May 29, 2012

Tell It Exactly Like It Is

My 11-year old daughter is a budding artist. She especially likes to draw people and can do so with remarkable accuracy. In fact, on more than one occasion, I have thought she’d traced a detailed, realistic rendering when she’d actually drawn it freehand herself.

If I were to give her general compliments when she shows me her sketchpad - “Great work, honey.” – she would feel good for a moment, but it wouldn’t make a long-term impact. So, instead, I’ve learned to be specific with my praise: “Rachel, you got the shading in those pupils just right,” or “Wow! The shape of those bicep muscles makes them look real.” The specific compliments help her know what to draw in the same way again, and the resulting directed practice helps her develop solid drawing habits so she gets even better.

Similarly, and just as we need to provide specific feedback to a child when correcting poor behavior, we need to offer specific praise when complimenting desirable actions. In other words, it’s really not enough to say, “Good job!” when we see a child behaving appropriately. Instead, we need to make sure she knows precisely what she did well:
“Offering the last granola bar to your sister was very generous.” 
“I saw how you held back from shouting at your brother when you were mad; that was a great show of self-control.”
“Thanks so much for clearing the table without being asked. That’s going to really help us get out the door on time for swim practice.” 
You see, if a child knows we generally approve of an attitude or behavior, he feels warm fuzzies for a moment. But, if we tell him exactly what we like, we empower him to repeat the same behavior in the future until it becomes a positive habit in his life. 

If you’re used to giving generalized praise, it’ll take a bit of practice on your part to get used to being specific. But you can do it. The next time you find yourself saying, “Good job!”, purpose to keep going and tell your child exactly what she did well. Before you know it, you’ll have mastered the specific compliment habit, thus giving your child powerful tools to use in her quest to develop patterns of good behavior.


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