My parents tell this story of being at a 21st birthday party and the parents listing all the things their daughter had done – her achievements thus far. Their heart sank, because they knew this girl as a girl of strong faith and character and those things weren’t mentioned in her parent’s praise. This gave me a strong desire that when it came time to celebrate my children moving into adulthood I wanted to be able to stand up and commend them for their character – the the values and beliefs that I could see in their life. I didn’t want to go through a list of achievements – what would really make me proud was to see that they were people of character.
With that in mind, I started to work towards that when they were young. I knew that I needed to recognise their character choices, instead of their achievements from then on – it was something that had to change in how we parented. Our society is driven by achievements. God’s kingdom is driven by character. It is hard to make the switch over in our thinking but so worth it. When we praise by drawing attention to the character choices we are building their hearts not just recognising their actions.
I define character as the quality of our responses to people or situations, based on our values. So as our children respond to life more and more in ways consistent with the values we are teaching them, they will become people of character. This is what character education at home, or in our family, is all about.
4 Tips for You to Encourage your Child
1-Set your Children up for Success
For our children to make character based choices they need to know what is the right way to respond in a given situation. We need to teach our children the moral values behind the actions we want of them. For example – we want them to not lie, so we teach them about telling the truth. We want them to be a good friend, so we teach them to be kind. We want them to be diligent, orderly, punctual, compassionate, flexible etc… so we need to teach them these things.
We can teach our kids these values proactively, before they are needed, but we can also teach on the spot. One way I do this is when I give an instruction, I give the reason why this is important, I remind them of the value that motivates us to do this action. For example, I could say – “It’s chore time – we need to keep our home orderly so we can enjoy being here together.” or “Please carry that carefully with two hands.” Woven in with my instructions is a reminder of the values we have as a family.
2-Notice what your Child does
I have found this to be one of the biggest keys in parenting – we need to be constantly watching our children – even when we are out and about. This isn’t to “catch them” doing bad but rather to guide them and direct them into what is good. When you see them heading the wrong way you can encourage them to choose a better way. When you see them doing the right thing you can praise them for their choice.
We need to have a heart that expects the best of our kids. Not always watching them to pounce on them for doing the wrong thing – we need to have more grace than that. But when we choose awareness and availability as the character traits that define our parenting – we can teach, guide and praise them as they grow in character.
Often taking the time to stop and say something to my children gets caught up in the busyness of getting through my day yet the reality is it doesn’t take very long to say something like – “I noticed how you did your chores this morning – you seemed very determined to complete them on time. You did a good job. I certainly appreciate having the kitchen ready for me to cook dinner. Thank you.”
That sounds very verbose and it might sound awkward to start with – but keep practicing it. Practice noticing, and commenting (that is, giving praise) for the things your kids do.
If you have no idea how to do this here is a little formula:
- Say what you saw them do (I saw you do your chores)
- Connect this to the choice they made (you made a choice to get it done on time)
- Affirm their choice. (well done! Good job! Excellent work etc…)
- Acknowledge how their choice and actions benefits them, you, or the family.
In the busyness of daily family life, if I don’t plan to think about these things – they just don’t happen. I often use my afternoon cuppa as a little review of our day. As I reflect over our day I not only bring to mind situations that require praise but possibly recognise that a child hasn’t done so well today so I still have a couple of hours to get along side of them and encourage them in some way – hopefully leading to a situation where I can praise them before the end of the day.
We’ve all heard of the string wrapped around the finger trick – do something to remind yourself to take notice of your children’s choices. You might have a time of day, or a poster on the fridge, a post-it on your mirror, beads around your wrist. Do something to remind yourself to encourage your child as they make good choices and establish good character in their lives.
A Caution to How you Praise your Child
We can so easily get caught up in the concept of praising our kids and making them feel good, that we don’t stop to think of the repercussions of our words and we give praise indiscriminately. What are the consequences of ill-timed praise? I believe it lowers our children’s standards – the standard that they hold in their own heart.
Let’s look at it. When a child is given a task – be it an academic task or a moral task, in the end, they know in their hearts to what standard they have been successful. They know the attitude of their heart, they know if they did well, or if they did the barest necessity. Then parent comes along and says, “Good job!” This confirms that the standard that they performed to is a standard good enough for mum and dad – or other adult.
The praise (though intended for good) actually confirms a lower standard than is excellent, a lower standard than what was their best.
In the past a lot of parenting styles would be labelled, these days, as authoritative or legalistic. This style of parenting would have said very little when the child did succeed and said very much when the parent was disappointed. I wonder if we get caught up in ill-timed praise has come as a reaction, trying to find a balance to a more relational style parenting.
I believe the pendulum has swung too far.
The balance is in seeing what praise can do for a child. Praise confirms the standard, confirms the moral rightness of an action rather than just making a child feel good about himself.
The idea of making a child feel good about himself is slightly out of whack too – what really makes a child feel good about himself? I believe it is when they know they are doing right – morally right. Our praise, when it is aimed at anything less than the standard the children are aiming for only sends mixed messages. We need to parent with character which means we need to be sincere, honest, and brave when it comes to the words that we speak.
Praise their Choices, Strengthen their Heart
Praise is usually expressed in words – words that express acknowledgement, approval, appreciation, admiration. (I didn’t mean to come up with 4 ‘a’ words – but there you go!)
We live in a society that values making people feel good about themselves. So praise may well be something you are familiar with. But do you praise in a way that builds up, strengthens, encourages the heart?
We can praise the actions of our children – or we can go to a heart level and praise the belief or value that motivated their action.
When we praise the action – we are parenting behavior.
When we praise the belief or value behind the action – we are parenting the heart.
This is not easy. The more kids you have running around – the harder this gets. Who has time to reflect on what motivated their child to do whatever they did. It gets tricky!
The key I found was to see the choice the child made – and praise that (if it was a wise choice).
When we start praising based on choices, we are parenting the heart. Our children make choices based on what they believe in that moment. They may believe that they are the boss – and therefore they can and do take what they want. Or, they may believe that the other person is special, that they love the other person, that God wants them to be kind to the other person – so they share what they have, or find a solution to sharing.
In this situation – we can say, “Well done for playing happily!” Or we can see and praise (give acknowledgement, approval, appreciation, and admiration) for the choice of being kind. Playing happily was the outcome of them making a choice based on a value they have in their heart.
When we start to see the choices our children make, we will be able to parent the heart.
When we praise the heart – the choices – we consolidate that value behind that choice, as a good thing to keep in their heart. The next time they are in a situation where they have to make a choice, their heart is that much stronger and their ability to make a wise choice is that much stronger, because you encouraged them and praised them for their character choice last t ime.
Over to You:
What do you think about this take on praise? Do you have enough character words in your vocab to talk to your kids like this? Let me know…
Celebrate when your Child makes Progress: When our child makes progress, take time to celebrate instead of moving straight onto the next life lesson they need to learn. Our children need us to recognize and praise their growth.
5 Different Ways Parents can Speak Life to their Kids: Throughout the day we have 5 different opportunities to speak words of life – words that instil hope, courage, trust and a sense of belonging.
Heart Conversations Take Time out of Your Day: It takes time to have meaningful heart conversations with our children – so we must make room in our day so we aren’t always feeling rushed when our kids need our attention.
How do you Define Success? What is success? How you define success will shape every decision you make in your family.