The Best Ways To Encourage Children | Descriptive Praise

The Best Ways To Encourage Children | Descriptive Praise

There’s a book I often hear about called ‘How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk’ by Adele Fabel & Elaine Mazlish, and when I finally got around to reading it all I could think was - where has this been my whole parenting life! It was insightful on so many levels with great tips to help improve and enrich my relationship with my boys. Some I’ve been doing (thankfully), some I haven’t, and there was one chapter that particularly resonated with me, the chapter on 'Praise'.

I praise my children a lot. I spend a good part of my day saying things like “That’s brilliant” or  “Wow” or “That’s so cool!” I remember hearing recently that young children can ask over a hundred questions a day, but I’m almost certain lots of mums overtake that number with the amount of encouraging words they say on a daily basis. And although, for me, my words of praise are said with love, some of the time I say them because I’m only half listening or I’m tired and a quick “Oh, great!” is the easiest response.

I remember recently (before lockdown!), when I picked Ross up from school, he spent a couple of minutes telling me in the car about a P.E game he played with his class. He did really well, scored lots of points and won the game. When he finished I looked at him and said “Amazing Ross. Well done!”. Throughout the day when conversations like this happen I think that this reaction is fine, great even. I’ve listened and responded with encouraging words. But as soon as I said those words, because of this great book, I knew that it wasn’t right.

A far better reaction is to describe what you see or hear instead, and this type of praise comes in two parts.

  1. The adult describes with appreciation what he or she hears or sees (in Ross’s case what I’ve just heard about the game he played and did well in).
  2. The child, after hearing the description, is then likely to praise himself. (either internally or aloud by contributing something to what you’ve just said).

“The children become more aware and appreciate their own strengths.”

The point of this type of praise is to encourage children to build self-esteem for themselves. If you can find a word or sentence that will tell your child something about himself that he may not have known before – “to give him a new verbal snapshot of himself” – that’s even better.

When Ross told me about the game, I should have said: “That sounded like a really fun game Ross. You were able to get past the opposition and get the ball into the net five times! That took lots of skill and energy” If I’d said that then he might have had the opportunity to answer with, “Thanks. Yeah, I was really good at dodging them”.

Discovering this type of praise was enlightening. It’s a wonderful, simple way to encourage confidence and self-esteem; and has really helped me to listen properly to what my children are saying so that I can give an uplifting and appropriate response. 

During the week I also discovered that this chapter relates perfectly to playtime with little ones, and it’s where I can get my practice in. Again I find it much easier and almost habitual to frequently say things like “That’s super” when I’m asked to look at, say, a fort they’ve just built from blocks or a picture they’ve just drawn.

“When we really look, really listen, really notice and then say aloud what you see and feel children learn what their strengths are. All of that goes in the emotional bank”.

This book is a brilliant source of helpful, practical advice. If you haven’t read ‘How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk’ yet I definitely recommend putting it on your reading list.

Jen x