Postive Guidance Tools of the Trade: Encouragement vs. Judgment and Praise

My apologies to those of  you who were following the Positive Guidance posts.  I’m finally back around to posting more details here and plan on making Saturdays for Positive Guidance Posts.  For those of you who haven’t read the Positive Guidance Posts, start here!


“Taking an interest in what others are thinking and doing is often
a much more powerful form of encouragement than praise.”
Robert Martin

It seems a simple thing to say that encouragement is one of the tools of positive guidance that will promote appropriate behavior in children.  But there are a few things to be mindful of.

Encouragement vs Judgement. 

First of all, there is a difference between encouragement and praise, which often comes in the form of judgement.  Let me give you an example.  Mary has spent the last 20 minutes in deep concentration as she completes a puzzle that is very complicated for her age.  Here are the two different styles of response.  Encouragement:  “You spent a long time on that puzzle, and now it’s all finished!  How do you feel about that?  Was it hard?”  Praise:  “Good Job!” 

Here’s another.  Jaime has just learned how to pump on a swing all on his own.  Encouragement:  “Jaime!  You are doing the pumping all on your own!  Look how high you’re going!  Your muscles must be getting so strong!”  Praise:  “Way to go!”  Now you’ll notice that in these two situations, the statements of encouragement are very specific in describing the behavior.  The statements of praise are so vague, they’re actually interchangeable.  That is the first problem with praise, a lack of specificity.

Be Specific.  Encouragement should describe the behavior or action you want to promote.  When you simply say, “Good Job!” the child has few ways of knowing what action in the last 5 minutes you are referring to.  Now, I’m not saying that “Good Job!” should forever be stricken from our lexicon, but I do think it’s used too often and any phrase that is over-used loses its meaning.  Children begin to notice when you simply respond to everything with a generic phrase of praise.  Instead, whenever your preferred statement slips out, follow it up with a more specific form of encouragement.  Let your generic statement become your “buzzer” reminding you to be descriptive.

Avoid Judgement.  Here’s another scenario for you.  Lupita has come to you with a painting.  Think about these two responses.  Praise:  “Wow, Lupita!  This painting is amazing!  It’s so beautiful!”  Encouragement:  “Oh Lupita, thank you for showing me your painting!  I see you used red, and yellow, and a very bright green over here.  Will you tell me about your painting?”  The statement of praise judges the painting, communicating to Lupita that your opinion is what matters in valuing her work.  Secondly, Lupita may have simply been cleaning off the brushes and bringing you the paper to throw away.  When she hears you react with such statements of praise, she begins to doubt the sincerity of your other responses as well.  Responding with encouragement not only communicates to Lupita that you value her work, but that you value her opinion as well.

Ask Them.  Just as in the above example, asking children how they feel about their behavior or work gives you more insight as to their intentions and thoughts.  Likewise, it encourages internal monitoring, rather than teaching children that as long as it gets past you it’s OK.  You may compliment a child on his behavior in one situation, when asking him to evaluate his own behavior may reveal that he was covertly pestering the child next to him all along.  Simply praising without these details merely reinforces the negative behavior. 

Read the quote under the picture on this post again.  (Go ahead.  I’ll wait for you.)  Simply asking children to tell you about their projects, their efforts, or their experiences tells them more about your sincere interest in them as people and encourages them far more than a passive, generic statement like, “Nice Work” ever could.

Recognize Effort and Progress, Not Just Accomplishment.  Statements of encouragement buoy up children all along the way, and are not reserved simply for recognizing a successful end result.  For example, “It takes a lot of practice to cut with those scissors.  It seemed to be easier for you this time!”  or “You spent a long time building with those blocks!”  or “You remembered almost every word to that song!”  If you really think about it, success is the result of hard work and effort.  So encourage that effort and recognize the progress along the way.

So listen to the way to speak with the children you love and teach.  Do you encourage them or do you use praise as judgement?  When you catch yourself using praise insincerely or judgmentally, rephrase and add some sincere encouragement.  See if it changes your relationship with your children (whether you’re raising them or teaching them), and share your experiences here!

Positive guidance posts start here!

Positive Guidance Toolbox can be found here!

Photo courtesy Mattox.


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4 responses to “Postive Guidance Tools of the Trade: Encouragement vs. Judgment and Praise

  1. I am so grateful to you for this post – I am in the midst of a slow process to wean my assistant off praise (And myself, at times, too, to be honest), but she is not really intellectually oriented so most of what I find to give her she doesn’t really connect with – but this is perfect! the actual examples are so useful. Encouragement works to help to develop a child’s intrinsic motivation, which is what we all want but many teachers and parents can’t get past the sticker mentality of slapping a bit of praise onto a product, without actually listening to the child. I would love to use your post as a newsletter article for my parents, if that would be okay?
    I only discovered your blog 2 days ago and am really enjoying delving into it.
    Louise in Victoria, Australia. (we are on our summer holidays so our academic year starts at the end of January, which is why my blog is “resting” at present….)

  2. Pingback: Turn the Page – How to Rewrite Your Script for Parenting and Teaching | Not Just Cute

  3. Pingback: Art Talk | Not Just Cute

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