In our new series, Noël Janis-Norton, acclaimed author of Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys, shares her first strategy for reducing misbehavior and raising motivated, cooperative and confident boys: Descriptive Praise.
When I ask parents what values, skills and habits they want their children to develop, they always tell me the same things: cooperative, confident, motivated, self-reliant and considerate.
Of these five habits, I believe the first is the gateway that leads to the other four. When children have learned the habit of being cooperative most of the time (i.e. doing what a trustworthy adult tells him to do, the first time he is told, without a fuss), this leads them to become more and more confident, motivated, self-reliant and considerate. Having to repeat and remind may seem like it’s just a fact of life when you’re living with boys. You may not even believe that it’s possible to get first-time cooperation most of the time. The good news is that it’s not difficult to achieve once you know how.
You deserve first-time cooperation from your son, and you can get it – most of the time. When your son is in the habit of doing what you ask the first time you ask, he will respect you more, and he will be nicer to be with. Everything will go more smoothly. Your son will feel better about himself when he’s mostly getting smiles and hugs for doing the right thing. That will be much more motivating for him than hearing your annoyed tone of voice or seeing the expression on your face when he’s not doing the right thing.
Starting this week, I will be sharing with Mr Fox readers some foolproof strategies for helping boys to cooperate, and therefore allowing other positive characteristics to follow as a result.
What is Descriptive Praise?
The quickest, easiest and most effective way to start guiding your son into more sensible habits is a strategy called Descriptive Praise. This is always the first strategy I teach parents because it is such a powerful motivator.
With Descriptive Praise you leave out the usual superlatives: Well done! Good boy! Wonderful! You’re so clever! Although the intention behind this praise is well-meaning (we want our children to feel confident, loved and special), it is not a very effective motivator because children are quite savvy; they know most of the time what they have done is not really fabulous and terrific. Children understand that this is the sort of thing parents say because they love you, not because it is true.
Instead, jettison the superlative praise, and notice and mention exactly what your child did that was OK:
‘You’re being gentle with the baby.’
‘You’re chewing with your mouth closed.’
‘You did what I told you to do as soon as I asked.’
This is the most powerful motivator because children want our approval. Even in the most loving households, it is easier for children to get negative attention (for dawdling, whingeing, teasing a sibling), than it is for them to get positive attention for doing the right thing. We have to pay attention to the little OK behaviours if we want to get more of them.
The more Descriptive Praise you give, the more your son will want to please you, so the more cooperative and sensible he will become. Before too long you will be able to count on ninety percent good behaviour – on most days. That has been the experience of every parent who has committed to descriptively praising small steps in the right direction at least ten times a day. That is because Descriptive Praise feels so good and because it helps your son to see himself as cooperative, sensible, helpful, kind, etc. Family life will become much calmer, easier and happier.
Q: I like the idea of Descriptive Praise, but there really isn’t much I can praise. My son could whinge for England! What can I find to praise?
A: Most misbehaviour is minor, although at times there is so much of it that it feels major. When your son is whingeing, resist the temptation to talk to him. If you reply to a whingeing child he will just assume ‘It’s OK to whinge because Mummy and Daddy are still going to talk to me.’ Wait until there is a pause in the whingeing before you reply. It may feel as if he is never going to stop whingeing, but he will pause sooner if you say nothing. Once he has stopped, wait about five seconds and then say, ‘You’re not whingeing now’.
Of course the first few times you Descriptively Praise him for stopping whingeing, he might look at you as if you are nuts. This is not at all the reaction he was expecting. He was expecting to get your attention by whingeing.
His response to your Descriptive Praise might be to say nothing, or he might start talking in a friendly, polite voice. But it is also possible that he might start whingeing all over again, or complaining or arguing. Once again, muster up the self-control to wait until there is a pause in the annoying behaviour, then Descriptively Praise him again for stopping. The more often you are willing to Descriptively Praise when your son stops the annoying behaviour, or even just pauses momentarily, the sooner he will see that the new way to get your attention is to do things right.
Q: As a busy working mother, I’m always thinking about what has to happen next to keep everyone on schedule. How am I going to remember to say all these Descriptive Praises?
A: I recommend ten Descriptive Praises per day per child. That may seem daunting at first, until it becomes a habit. Start by taking a few minutes at a quiet moment to jot down a short list of the habits your son has that really annoy or infuriate you – this is usually not difficult! Then your job is to notice, several times a day, when he is not doing one of those annoying behaviours and to mention it. If teasing his brother is an issue, Descriptively Praise him when he is being friendly or even when he’s leaving his brother alone. If he often leaves his belongings scattered about, notice and mention whenever he picks something up, even if he does not put it back in exactly the right place. You can say, ‘You didn’t leave your blazer on the floor.’ He may have thrown his blazer on a chair instead of hanging it up, but the chair is an improvement over the floor, so it needs to be acknowledged.
Q: Is it OK to use superlatives along with the Descriptive Praise, like ‘That’s terrific that you tidied away your toys’ or ‘I’m so happy you started your homework straightaway’?
A: On the rare occasions when your son does something new or big that really does make your heart sing, by all means show how happy and excited you are. But, truthfully, how often do our children do something amazing? Tidying up is not something terrific; it’s what we expect him to do. The same is true of staying seated at the dinner table until he’s been excused, putting his clothes in the laundry basket, using his ‘indoor voice’, etc.
Let’s show that we’re pleased by our Descriptive Praises and our smiles rather than by gushing. When we’re slathering on the superlatives, we’re hoping to influence our children to behave better. But those over-the-top exclamations are counter-productive because children have heard them so often. Consider the disconnect if we get annoyed when they don’t tidy away their toys, but we act as if it’s a miracle when they do. That is bound to be confusing.
Also, you would probably bore yourself and irritate your son if you were to say, ‘I’m happy’ each time he does something that’s good. And it doesn’t really help him to hear that you’re happy; what is important is that he hears about what he has done right or what he has not done wrong. That’s the power of Descriptive Praise. So we need to train ourselves to change our old habits.
Q: I understand about Descriptive Praise for the OK behaviour. But are you saying I should just ignore the bad behaviour?
A: No! Many parenting books and articles advise parents to ignore misbehaviour and to reward good behaviour with positive attention. But ignoring misbehaviour is difficult to do consistently, unless you’re a saint, because a child whose misbehaviour is being ignored is likely to escalate the misbehaviour to try and get your attention. If by ignoring you mean trying to pretend he is not being annoying, he will probably re-double his efforts in order to get the usual reaction.
What is much more effective than ignoring, is to look at your child but say nothing. Wait in silence until there is a pause in the annoying behaviour, and then Descriptively Praise the absence of the negative.
Noël Janis-Norton is a learning and behaviour specialist with over 45 years’ experience in Britain and the United States as a head teacher, special needs advisor, consultant, lecturer, parenting coach, speaker and author. She is the founder of Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, resources that can help you and your family, from books and CDs to parenting courses, workshops, fortnightly talks and private consultations (at the Centre or by telephone).
Her new book, Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys is out now.