Sunday, March 7, 2010


The other day,  I had a fascinating conversation with several Together Time moms about the topic of “praise vs. encouragement.” (This reminded me of a previous blog post:  “Say Anything,” from August 2, 2009.) That conversation left all of us with a lot to think about. Sometimes it seems that it’s very counter-intuitive to avoid being the world’s peppiest cheerleader as a way of motivating our kids.  But according to many experts, and according to my own long experience, the type of feedback that helps kids feel both encouraged and motivated is very different from the “Awesome!” or “Good job!” that rolls so easily off the tongues of many positive parents. 

Why is this so true? One of these terrific moms said that she always gives a lot of excited attention to her toddler’s interest in letters and numbers because she “wants her child to love learning.” But somehow, as we sat there discussing this, we all agreed that it seems that excessive cheerleading usually tends to have the opposite effect. 

One of the moms came back to school the following week with the excellent book, Positive Discipline For Preschoolers by Dr. Jane Nelsen.  She said she had been thinking all week about our discussion and had been reading about this topic in the book.  She reminded me that in this book, Dr. Nelsen describes a good way to determine if your responses to your kids fall into the “encouragement” category, or are actually well-disguised praise, and therefore less helpful. 

Dr. Nelsen says that if you can only use your comment with this child at this time in this situation, then it is specific enough to be considered ENCOURAGEMENT.  If your words are multi-purpose and could be spoken to any child in any situation, then it’s just fluffy, useless praise. Hmm…. so it sounds like one component in high-quality encouragement is specificity, and another important ingredient is authenticity along with your undivided attention.  You can’t give specific feedback when you’re just not paying attention.

I’m as needy as anyone, when it comes to encouragement.  Thinking back over the years, some of the best “compliments” I’ve ever gotten, and the ones that have stuck with me the longest, are extremely specific and unique to my skills and qualities.  For example, a “fan” (whom I happen to be married to) recently told me that he enjoyed reading my blog because the ideas made sense and the writing was clear and fun to read. 

This comment made me jump for joy for many reasons. It made me happy and motivated me to write more because he reflected my own desires for my writing:  I had been trying hard to make my writing clear as a bell,   and to make sure that I only write about concepts that will “make sense” to parents.  The other reason this was an especially yummy compliment is that this guy of mine does not often fall all over himself handing out compliments at all.  Positive feedback from him, I’ve learned after several decades,  is somewhat rare, but completely heartfelt.  If he says it, he means it. How might I feel if he routinely said, “you’re great,” “your’re the best,” or “love the blog?” Those words would have little meaning to me because he could say them at just about any time without telling me the specifics of what he loves about the writing or of why I’m “the best” in his eyes. But since the positive comments he offered were authentic and specific, I could then see myself in a new way:  as a person whose clear writing makes sense! 

Applying these ideas to the accomplishments of toddlers, some examples of meaningful ENCOURAGMENT come to mind. Try putting yourself in the sneakers of a toddler and ask yourself how these statements would make you feel:

“You washed your hands all by yourself!  And you remembered to turn off the faucet. Thanks!”

“You used a lot of different colors in your painting.” 

“I watched you when you were drawing and I saw that you were working very hard.”

“You are learning to write your name.  That must feel really good for you.”

“It looks like you felt your picture needed one last patch of red right there!”

“I can see that you’re ready to get rid of the diapers now and wear underwear all the time!  How does that feel?”

“Last week you couldn’t hop on one foot, but now you can!  You’re learning new things every day.”

“Thank you for feeding the dog. She appreciates the food and she knows you care about her.”

“You are painting with big brush strokes, and your sister is making her picture with dots.  It’s interesting how art is different for everyone.”

“You have a big smile! It looks like you feel very good about learning to hang from the monkey bars by yourself.”

“It’s so helpful when you take your dishes to the kitchen.”

“When your block tower fell down, you just built it right back up again!”

If you compare the effect of these honest statements to the way it feels to hear “Awesome!” many times every day, I think you’ll have to agree that the specific statements offer much more useful information and just plain feel better. We all love knowing that someone is blessing us with their presence and paying close attention to us. High-quality encouragement makes that abundantly clear. 

So….. if you find that this post “makes sense” and that the writing is “clear,” you can thank my biggest fan.  His specific encouragement helps me feel like writing. Having him as my ever-present Tech Support Department helps a lot too.  Thanks, Hon. 


  1. I can so relate to this. What makes us feels encouraged is not all that different for kids. When my husband reads a blog post that I write, he'll often say, "it's good" which is nice, but what would really keep me excited about writing would be if he would say something specific he liked. Like how I used a phrase or made a certain point, etc.

  2. Thanks for reminding me to validate and encourage children's learning in this more meaningful and mindful way. I will be sure to practice this tomorrow in the classroom.

  3. I have to work really hard at not giving my kids general praise and I find it's the hardest when they want me to say something about their artwork. I have to change my usual, "That's beautiful!" to something more specific. Like you wrote, it tells the child we are paying attention and that feels good :)

  4. What a wonderful blog you have here! I look forward to reading it as soon as I find the time -Just as soon as my 2 year old is done throwing her tantrum on the floor and my 9 year old is finished talking back! I can't wait to read this blog as I'm sure I will gain valuable insight and suggestions!
    -Nichole (a friend of your daughter)


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