When Praise Is Hard
The Why, What, and How of Effectively Praising our Children — Part 3 of 3
Some kids can be hard to praise because so much of their behavior flows out of their discouragement. We see these kids as “diamonds in the rough”, and the challenge for parents is to see and praise “whatever is worthy of praise” beneath often tough exteriors.
“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute – if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise – let your mind dwell on these things” (Philippians 4: 8, NASB).
Ricky had just been suspended from school for threatening his teachers – a bit unusual for a fourth grader. I was enlisted to help him and his parents learn new skills for coping with his anger. I first spoke with his parents about the importance of finding ways, even in this difficult stage, to affirm or praise him. “It’s just so hard when it seems everything he does is so rude!” His mom lamented. So we set up a meeting with Ricky to see if I could model this for his parents.
During that first meeting I asked Ricky, “What are some things you’re good at?” He shrugged, unable to give an answer. I probed further, “What are some good things the adults in your life might say about you?” Ricky about hit the roof!
“Are you kiddin’? There’s nothin’ for them to say because there’s nothing good about me! I yell, I swear, I scream, and then I get in trouble!” His intensity surprised me. I’d never seen a child this young so adamant about his perceived failures.
I waited to see if he had more to say. He stared blankly at the floor. “Well,” I said, speaking slowly and gently, “I’ve already noticed some stuff you’re good at.” I paused. Ricky glanced up at me.
“Whatever,” he said, returning his gaze to the floor.
I waited further and offered, “You let me know if you’re interested in knowing, and I’ll tell you.” I paused again. “Anything else you want to tell me before we get started?”
“What did you notice?” he immediately asked, revealing his hunger to be affirmed, but on his terms, not on mine. I proceeded to tell him that I noticed how respectful he’d been with me, a strange adult, during the first part of our meeting. I told him I appreciated the fact that when he got angry, he didn’t name-call or swear, and that it seemed to me he’d been pretty honest. I even affirmed that he was good at letting me know he was angry. With a half smile, Ricky looked up and said, “Whatever.” I knew, however, that he liked hearing what I’d said. As his mom caught on to affirming Ricky this way, things settled down between them and Ricky became more respectful at home and at school.
Learning to notice and affirm “whatever is good” is a critically important parenting skill because it helps guide a child “in the way he should go.” (Prov 22:6) The starting place for this guidance is my watchful eye as a parent. Developing this “eye” requires studious attention. Then, when I notice something good, I can express it, whatever it is, as I did with Ricky. Unless I express what I notice, it will have no power to shape or encourage my child.
When it’s hard to find something to affirm I can ask myself, “What negative behavior didn’t happen?” (i.e., Thanks for letting me talk uninterrupted – that was really helpful!) Or, “What went right, even though some things went wrong?” (i.e., I’m disappointed in what you did, but I’m really glad you told me about it.)
The goal to notice and affirm whatever is excellent or praiseworthy transforms my parenting journey from a maze to a treasure hunt. Instead of simply figuring out the path to managing behavior, parenting becomes a search to find and proclaim the jewels of goodness in my child’s life.