Praise is an essential part of growth in virtue. For it is by praise and blame that we know what is good and bad. Praise also has the effect of making us feel good and happy consequently teaching us what actions lead to happiness, which is the ultimate goal of virtue. So if we wish to raise virtuous children we must know how to praise correctly. One study has shown that children whose parents praised their good manners at home had better social skills at school (Garner 2006; Hastings et al 2007).
Like so many of the topics covered in Child Psychology the way a parent praises their child must take into account developmental changes. The way a toddler is praised is different then the way we praise a fourth grader and both of these are radically different than the way we praise adolescents.
The first principle of right praise is to be sincere. Every instance of praise must be motivated out of a conscious awareness of the good accomplished by the child. This becomes demonstrably important in adolescence when the teen is already quick to dismiss the praise of their parent even when it is sincerely meant. This dismissal happens all the more when it is not sincere and can be met with violent outburst and reckless behavior.
When praise is a sincere, honest response to specific behavior, the child receives the message that what they do is seen and matters to others. Indeed praise comes into the English Language from a Latin word through the French language, which means price or value. So to praise a child is to state what is valuable about them. Frequent praise that is not a response to the child’s actions and praise that is too general undermine the sincerity of a parents praise.
Praise in Childhood
Childhood brings with it not only many subtle developmental changes, but also many new places like school, and occasions like tests, sports, and friends brought about by a wider social group, to grow in virtue. This brings us to the second principle of praise: be specific and praise the action performed, not the person performing the action. Praise like, “you are smart” produces in the child a fear of falling away from this state, a fear of failure. For many the best way to avoid failure is to avoid trying. Praise like, “You found a good way to complete those math problems,” is both very specific and focuses upon the action preformed by the child, upon something the child has control over. No child has control over their native ability, their intelligence, but every child has control over whether or not they tackle a set of geometry proofs.
Praise in Adolescence
As children grow into teenagers they begin to think critically about every thing said to them, not least of all about the praise they receive and those from whom they receive it. It often happens that if praise is received for things that come easily, requiring little effort, the adolescent assumes that the one offering the praise is not a good judge of what is praiseworthy. Thus parents and teachers must praise those things requiring effort appropriate to an adolescent, and less praise for those acts appropriate to a child.
Another characteristic of praise which is important throughout ones life, but takes on particular nuances in adolescence is to praise spontaneously and sparingly. This is part of being sincere, we do not want to praise an action simply to reinforce the behavior but rather because we as parents, teachers, and mentor perceive it to be a truly good and praiseworthy act.
Often adolescents, while perhaps acknowledging the sincerity of their parents praise, begin to assume that they will receive praise from their parents regardless of their actions. Especially as the adolescent begins to specialize in skills and knowledge about which the parent may have little experience, the adolescent feels the need for praise from teachers, mentors, coaches or those with some specialization.
In a subsequent article we hope to take up specific kinds of praise for specific virtues. What is more we hope to take into account the developmental stages of praise for each virtue. Also we will do an article on how to criticize our rational animals. If you have any thoughts, personal stories or reflections on praising or criticizing your children – or being praised or criticized as a child – let us know in the comments section!