Growing up, one of my best friends lived down the street from me with her terribly abusive stepfather and mother. Susie (the mother) was outside, dragging one of her daughters by the arm down the street, throwing punches and screaming curses. My mother and I were on the porch swing at the time. Mom turned to me with wide, angry eyes. She took a deep breath and said through gritted teeth, “You know 70% of discipline is praise, right?”
I had heard my mother reiterate this many times: during babysitting troubles or where my young nephew was concerned. Throughout my childhood she worked at Head Start. I remember her conducting staff meetings at home when I was sick. Phrases like strength-based plans and developmental play wafted from our kitchen and were plastered on the walls of the Head Start office (where I had my first official job, vacuuming the carpets and emptying trash cans). And my mother put her money where her mouth is, using positive praise as a primary motivator throughout my childhood. I’m grateful I was exposed to positive parenting and the importance of praise from a young age. Let me tell you why.
The Power of Praise
Positive parenting is a parenting style that focuses on consistency, setting boundaries, knowledge of childhood development, a nurturing environment, and staying cognizant of the end goal of raising independent adults. Positive communication and praise is used in positive parenting, but, as with most things, I like to go overboard. When faced with negative behavior from our toddlers, we employ non-reaction. And when the boys are following the rules, we heap on praise.
There are many articles dissecting the effectiveness of praise, in settings from workplaces to schools. Josh and I aren’t handing out participation trophies, though. We try to make our praise sincere, specific, deserved, and focused more on the effort than the outcome. What we do is more…positive narration than endless adulation. For example, while coloring, I’d say something like, “What a cool way to blend those colors!” rather than “You’re the best artist!”
It is very clear to our toddlers what behavior pleases us. This is soothing to tiny humans that can barely communicate. They are excited and pleased in their ability to draw smiles and positive communication from us. In other words, Big and Little A are as motivated to follow our commands as we are to give them.
Encouraging Autonomy Through Praise
A toddler’s day is filled with things they don’t want to do: transitions, diaper changes, not biting their brother. I’m never going to stop initiating these daily toddler annoyances, but I can make them a bit easier. I do this by using the compliment, “What a good choice!” The beauty of this compliment is that I use it regardless whether a choice was actually made.
Let’s say one of the boys are throwing a fit. When they stop to take some deep breaths, are distracted, and/or tire themselves out, I fill the temporary silence with a calm praise litany: “What a good choice, I love how calm you are. You feel big feelings and controlling them is hard, you’re doing a good job.” I repeat this quietly, even singing it to nursery rhymes tunes.
Over time, the boys have come to believe me. It’s a set routine now: they get upset, then they’re not, and they get praised for calming down. The time between them being upset and getting calm gets shorter and shorter. The hope is that the boys come to understand that while they may not always be able to control what happens to them, they can control how they react. To me, that is the ultimate level of autonomy.
Casual Commands Deserve Praising Too
So much of my day is spend bossing the A Team around. “Come here,” “Sit down,” “Hand me that,” “Put this up,” “Time to eat,” “Lay down and go to sleep,” etc, etc, etc. Can you imagine being micromanaged that much? It’s probably hard. Casual commands are necessary, I’m not saying we should use them less. I’m saying all compliance deserves praise.
The frequency of casual commands can be a good thing when used in conjunction with praise. I change the boys’ diapers many times a day. Therefore, there are multiple opportunities for me to tell them to lay down and then praise them when they do. My favorite compliment for casual commands are variations of “you’re such a good listener!”
I do this to set the expectation that listening is important. It makes Mom light up and say “Thank you!” The toddler feels acknowledged and I’m being listened to without losing my mind (most of the time). It’s a win-win.
“Catching” Good Behavior: Incidental Praise
Sometimes I praise the boys for what seems like no reason at all.
Say I come around the corner and spy Little A sitting by himself looking at a book. While he’s been doing this I’ve been able to put laundry in the dryer, make a phone call, put on some mascara, whatever. So I’ll say casually, usually while attending to other things (gotta take advantage of independent play, amiright?), “What a great job you’re doing sitting quietly, just amusing yourself. What a big boy you are. Look at you, looking at your book. That’s so cool.”
There are sooo many situations for incidental praise. Incidental praise is a great way to deal with negative behaviors without having to be smack dab in the middle of them. When Big A didn’t want to sit still in shopping carts, I would find ways to praise him for sitting still in other situations. Soon he associated sitting still with positive communication. It’s been a non-issue since.
Using praise to make expectations clear, encourage autonomy, stress the importance of listening, and deal with negative behavior has helped our household run more smoothly. The boys have briefer tantrums and I get compliance without casual commands morphing to yelling commands (most of the time). Using praise doesn’t take much effort on our part, really. No chart to make, no behavior plan to map. Just a steady stream of positive, inane chatter.
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