Using Praise to Encourage Good Behaviors

How your words can change your child's behavior

Mother and daughter high-fiving
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Praise is a simple but effective discipline strategy that increases good behavior. Pointing out when your child is following the rules or telling him that you appreciate his compliance will motivate him to keep up the good work.

Positive vs. Negative Attention

Imagine standing in a room with three children. Two of the children are playing quietly with toys. One child is running around wildly, jumping on furniture and screeching. Which child would be most likely to get your attention? If you're like most parents, you might give the misbehaving child more attention.

If, however, you praised the children who were behaving, you could change the entire situation. Saying, "Wow, I love the way you are sitting there playing quietly," may motivate the misbehaving child to follow suit.

But it's easy to let good behaviors often go unnoticed. But when kids aren't getting attention, they'll often do whatever it takes to get noticed—and sometimes, that means misbehaving. When you give your child positive attention for good behavior, he'll be less likely to act out.

Behaviors Praise Can Help With

Praise can encourage a variety of good behaviors. Catch your child being good and point it out. Positive reinforcement will encourage it to continue.

Here are a few specific behaviors that can be especially responsive to praise:

  • Prosocial behavior - Praise your child for sharing, taking turns, using kind words, and getting along well with others.
  • Compliance - Praise your child for following the rules and listening to your instructions. Remember to pay attention when your child is playing quietly or entertaining himself.
  • Effort - When your child is learning a new skill, praise can encourage him to keep trying. For example, if you praise your child for his willingness to try hard or his ability to be patient as he learns, you'll increase his motivation to keep trying.

Make Praise Effective

Praise and positive attention are healthy when it's given appropriately. Here are some ways to make your praise particularly effective in encouraging good behavior:

  • Offer immediate and frequent feedback. Offer frequent praise if your child is playing quietly for an extended period of time or if he's working hard on a project for a whole afternoon.
  • Make praise specific. Instead of saying “Good job,” say, “Great job putting your plate in the sink right when I asked you to.” This makes it clear that you are praising his immediate compliance.
  • Frame your praise positively. Instead of saying, “Nice job not whining,” say, “I’m proud of you for staying calm when I said that you couldn’t go outside.” Point out the behaviors you want to see more of, not the behaviors you hope to diminish. Never mix praise with criticism, or it will lose effectiveness.
  • Praise effort, not the outcome. Praise can build healthy self-esteem when you use it to point out your child's effort. Rather than praise your child for getting a 100, praise his willingness to study for the test.
  • Offer genuine praise. Rather than say, "You're the smartest kid ever," or, "You're the best soccer player in the whole school," offer realistic praise. Say things like, "You're a good runner," or "You do a great job of getting your homework done."
  • Avoid labels. Labels, even when they're positive, aren't a good idea. Referring to your child as "your little genius," or "a soccer star," may cause your child to think that's all he's known for. Focus your praise on his behavior, not his traits.

Incorporate Praise Into Your Overall Discipline Plan

You can prevent a lot of misbehavior by catching your child being good. But, when your child breaks the rules, it's important to provide negative consequences that will deter him from misbehaving in the future.

When your child is struggling with a specific behavioral issue, create a clear plan for how you can use praise to encourage good behavior. For example, if he hits his brother when he's angry, invest your energy into praising him for using kind words, gentle touches, and problem-solving skills.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Bear GG, Slaughter JC, Mantz LS, Farley-Ripple E. Rewards, praise, and punitive consequences: Relations with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Teaching and Teacher Education. 2017;65:10-20.

  • Leijten P, Thomaes S, Castro BOD, Dishion TJ, Matthys W. What good is labeling whats good? A field experimental investigation of parental labeled praise and child compliance. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 2016;87:134-141.