Last year I attended a workshop with the above title, and since the topic was centered on child rearing, I was sure that the answer was a) to praise. However, I was in for a surprise.
And now you are too. My fabulous mother-in-law has been asking me to write about interacting with children, as my free job as an intern is to provide Parent Child Interaction Therapy to families in Durham, NC. Although this is not only as bad as the blind leading the blind, but worse, because I feel like the blind leading the fully-seeing, I hope that you mothers out there will bear with me (a mere future-mother) as I share a little about what I've learned working as a Parent Child Interaction Therapist. Today's entry will be about praise, and it is a combination of what I learned in the workshop and what I've learned from my internship. My hope is to sporadically write future entries on the topics of "actively ignoring", "behavior descriptions" and whatever else comes to mind!
Now back to praise. When I showed up at the workshop a year ago, I had my first dose of learning about "specific" or "labeled" praise, and it has since become one of my favorite topics. From the lady who presented at the workshop, I learned the crucial difference between the comments "Great job!" and "Wow, I love to see you help me clean up". In the first scenario, the child feels good but doesn't necessarily know what behavior they need to repeat in order to get the same feedback in the future, whereas in the second sentence, the child is clear about what you appreciate and what they must do to have your positive attention. Plus, giving specific praise to children is a simple way to teach them what you value: for example, think of what types of praise you can come up with around the verbs "sharing", "helping", or "working so hard". You can send simple messages about family values without even launching into a lecture or spiel.
This next piece of "praise" advice is one level deeper and a bit more sophisticated, but I trust that you readers will grasp it quickly. Once you have figured out "labeled praise", the next challenge is to label behaviors rather than innate characteristics. Listen to the difference between "you're so great" and "I am so impressed when I see you taking responsibility for your pets". May I use a study to illustrate my point?
In a study on children and the effects of praise (and this parentheses is where the reference goes, but as you can see I'm an embarrassment to grad schools everywhere and I don't have a reference!), the investigators gave two groups of kids a fairly easy puzzle, and at the successful completion of the puzzle they told one group, "Wow, you are so smart!", and the other group they told "Wow, you worked so hard!". Well, when the two groups received the next puzzle, a more challenging one, guess which group did significantly better? A: The group that was given the feedback that they were hard workers, because when the going got tough, the message they still had ringing in their ears was that hard work is what had made them successful the first time. No matter how intrinsically smart our kids are, there will always be things that will challenge them in life. You would be surprised at how quickly child prodigies give up on tasks that they are not good at, because when you have had the running commentary your entire existence that you are a genius, it makes doing hard things simply not worth the effort.
Self-esteem in children is the combination of praise from parents and positive regard from others as well as the actual ability to accomplish and create. So, allow your children the challenge of learning and growing by praising the process, as well as the product.
As a friend and I left the workshop on praise, she shared a story with me. As a high schooler she was an accomplished artist, and people told her frequently how talented she was. When she arrived at college and saw how average her art was in comparison to the other students, she decided that she wasn't so talented after all, and left her passion to pursue something else. It just makes me think: what if the feedback she received from others had centered on her diligence or patience with the process, rather than on her talent?
So, to summarize - and thanks for holding out with this long entry - praise is naturally a very powerful way of creating a relationship with a child. Praise is most useful if it is specific and lets the child know precisely what they must do to earn your admiration in the future. For those of you up for the double challenge, think about praising things that children have control over, rather than innate characteristics.