Today I signed my daughter up for her first Tri 4 Schools event, conjuring up all sorts of thoughts on how to be an encouraging parent without being overbearing.  This post originally appeared on the Meriter-Unity Point Health blog, and since they great partners of ours, I thought it was worth sharing.  We’re so grateful for their support!

Dear Dr. Hanson: One of my New Year’s resolutions was to be more positive toward my children and instead of focusing on disciplining them, try to praise more. Do you think this is a good approach? Is there such a thing as too much praise?

Dear Reader: You have the right idea; I think we all would benefit from more positive reinforcement in our lives, but this is especially true for children. You are very insightful to be aware of finding the “right” amount, and type of praise. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Be specific. Instead of telling your daughter “Wow, you had a really good soccer game today,” say, “You did a great job passing the ball to Susie before she scored a goal.” Not only does it help cement certain skills or behaviors, but it also lets your daughter know you were paying attention and not just looking at your emails during the game.

Be honest. It sounds easy, but as parents, we have a tendency to overinflate our children’s accomplishments. How many of us have said “That’s the most beautiful flower I’ve ever seen,” even if the drawing looks more like a donkey? It’s better to make a statement that isn’t positive or negative, such as “I can tell that you’ve worked hard on your drawing.”

Focus on effort, regardless of the outcome. There are so many things children work hard on that take time and effort to learn to do well. If your child is just learning to play the piano and his practicing sounds more like a cat walking across the keyboard than “Hot Cross Buns,” resist the temptation to tell him that the music sounds beautiful. Instead, comment on his dedication and focus when practicing. My two older children are often frustrated with skills that take time, so I try to praise them whenever they are able to keep their frustration at bay – “I’m proud of how you stayed calm when trying to make a basket and kept on trying. That must have been frustrating.”

Don’t praise qualities that your child has no control over. Telling your daughter that she is beautiful is OK every once in a while, but don’t overdo it as her appearance isn’t something that she can easily change. The same goes for natural talents or intelligence. If your son has a knack for math, encourage and praise his efforts to challenge himself and work out difficult problems, instead of telling him that he’s “so smart.”

Do use praise to help guide behavior. Many parents have heard the phrase “Catch your children being good,” which sounds in line with your New Year’s resolution. What this means is instead of being negative when your children are naughty, praise them when they are behaving or demonstrating other behavior that you want to reinforce. But, remember the importance of being specific. Instead of saying “Great job at dinner tonight,” it’s better to say, “I was really impressed with how nicely you sat in your chair the whole time at dinner.”

Let your child know mistakes are OK. Sometimes, when children are overly praised, they begin to fear failure and therefore are afraid to try new things. Be sure to recognize and reinforce trying new activities with your children, even if they aren’t successful. Riding a bike is a great example of this. For many kids it can take a few weeks (or longer) of trying to get the hang of it. If your child comes in from another attempt and still hasn’t got it down, it’s OK to say, “I’m proud of how hard you’re trying” or “I was impressed to see you get right up and try again after falling.”

Avoid praising by comparison. Try not to create competition or feelings of superiority in your child by focusing on winning or being better than their peers or teammates – keep the focus on their own efforts or personal goals. Good luck to you – hopefully this resolution is one that leads to a positive change for your entire family throughout the year.

This column provides general health information and is not specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). It is not a professional medical opinion or a diagnosis. Always consult your personal health care provider about your concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by Dr. Hanson to people submitting questions.

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