3 Gentle and Effective Ways to Teach Your Child Right from Wrong


You may have heard there's a such thing as good praise and bad praise for our kids. For example, kids who are told they are smart might not try as hard, lest they fail and destroy proof of their smarts. I made an effort at telling my daughter that she was working hard when she was doing so (instead of endlessly hitting the random praise button) but I couldn't quite wrap my head around the specifics in order to praise her in a way that felt truthful and compelling.

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Now that she's two and I have higher expectations for her behavior on basic things like hitting people or putting food on the floor, I am wary of falling into the trap of constant correction and criticism. If a child doesn't think it's possible to please her parent, she will stop trying. But of course I still need to guide her behavior! What's a confused momma to do?

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Learning and behavior specialist Noel Janis-Norton wrote a post for the Mother Company on Getting Your Children to Cooperate. In her post, I found some great answers to the praise conundrum. The more a parent shows she can be impressed by a child's behavior, the more a child will want to tap into that approval. I recommend reading Janis-Norton's post for more specifics, but I've broken down the essentials for you here:

1. Be Specific and Descriptive in Your Praise

I'm guilty of saying things like "great job" and "nice work" but these generic ways of praising kids are easy for a child to ignore and don't teach anything constructive. Generic praise doesn't call out exactly what makes me happy, and when used frequently instead of specifics, "good job" becomes background noise. Instead, try using descriptive praise to point out what you like about a behavior to get your kid to focus on doing more of it.

Janis-Norton says:

As children begin to internalize the Descriptive Praise, they feel good when they do the right thing, and they start to feel uncomfortable when they do the wrong thing. This is the birth of conscience. And that is one of our goals as parents, that our children tell themselves the right thing to do. Cooperation is the first step towards developing a strong conscience.

Compliment your child on the specifics of the behavior you crave. What exactly did your child do right? Did they follow your instruction, even though they didn't want to? Did they respond right away when you called their name? Did they stay focused on a task and work hard at it? Tell your child what they did and why you're pleased.

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2. Correct Bad Behavior With a "Think Through"

I've actually done this before without having a name for it, and it worked like a charm. One day, I had to take Alex to run an errand. I picked her up in my arms so that she wouldn't wander off when I got up to the counter to speak to a customer service rep. However, I could hardly hear myself speak as she started yelling and flailing to get down. My conversation was quick, strained and embarrassing. As we walked away, I told her nicely that yelling and squirming was unwelcome behavior. She would have to try harder next time to be still and quiet. She agreed that next time she would try harder.

Janis-Norton says:

Generally we're so busy that we often forget to tell our kids what they should do or how they should do it, and then we get annoyed when they do something wrong so we scold them. A think-through happens at a neutral time, not right after the child has done something wrong. A think-through focuses on what the child should do right in the future, not on what he did wrong in the past.

The next day, we went back. As we stood on line, I reminded her that she had to be still and quiet while I talked to the customer service rep. When I picked her up, she automatically began to struggle again. Remembering what it's like to be two years old on a boring errand, I decided to give her some advice: I pointed to the painting on the wall behind the counter and told her that looking at the painting would help her be still and quiet. The think-through combined with the last-minute advice was a winning formula.

3. Do Not Do Things for Your Children They Can Do Themselves

Janis-Norton says that acting like an unpaid servant to your children will undermine their respect for you, while having them do everything they are capable of builds self-reliance and confidence.

And here is where all three lessons come together. Think of something you are guilty of doing for your child. Janis-Norton uses the example of a child handing a candy wrapper to the parent. She suggests not taking the candy wrapper, and not even pointing out the trash can. (Of course, use your head on age appropriateness. I'm pretty sure I'd have to point out the whole "trash can" thing to a two-year-old.) Once your child throws out the trash himself, use descriptive praise to reinforce the good behavior. If handing the parent trash is a common scenario, Janis-Norton advises coming up with a new rule, like "Everybody handles their own trash," and then doing think-throughs on the desired behavior until it sticks.

As long as you tailor the advice to your circumstances and the age of your child, you should start seeing more cooperation and less struggling. Happy parenting!

This post was written by Katie Morton.

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