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Catch Kids Being Good: Praise and the Praise Box

Fist Bump

The following is a Q&A with Boys Town behavioral expert on praise and how to use it with the Praise Box.

Q: What is praise?

A: More than anything else, children want and need the attention of their parents, and they will do anything to get it. Praise is the positive attention and approval children crave from parents. Unfortunately, we often tend to give children negative attention only when they are doing something we do not like and miss opportunities to give them positive attention (praise) when they do things we want them to do. For example, we might not acknowledge a child who is sitting at the table eating dinner with the family. But if that child is running around the dining room instead of eating, we are all over him or her for misbehaving.

This is not to say we shouldn't give a child negative consequences for running around when he or she is supposed to be sitting at the table. We should. But we also need to provide positive attention to the child when he or she is sitting and eating. In other words, we should always be looking for and acting on opportunities to praise children for their positive behavior.

Q: How can parents put praise into practice in their homes?

A: One way parents can do this is to make a list of the negative behaviors they want their children to stop and then write down the positive – or "opposites" – of that behavior. So if your child is hitting, the positive opposites of that behavior could include "being gentle," "keeping hands to self," or "staying calm."

Next, parents should start giving more attention to the child's positive behaviors so he or she starts associating that attention with doing something good. Parents can use verbal praise to do this; these statements might sound something like this: "Great job being gentle with your sister," or "Thank you for keeping your hands to yourself even when you are mad."

Using a specific praise statement to call attention to a positive behavior encourages children to use that behavior more often in the future. Specific praise also teaches kids which particular behaviors are appropriate and good to use. Simply saying something general like "Good job" does not let children know exactly what to do again next time. For example, praising a child who has difficult time staying seated by saying, "I like how you are staying in your seat," lets the child know exactly what he or she did and that he or she is able to do it. And it provides recognition to the child for doing it, demonstrates that doing it will earn positive attention from you, and encourages him or her to keep doing it.

Q: How frequently should parents give praise?

A: We encourage parents to praise kids at a ratio of four praise interactions for every one corrective interaction for negative behavior – or as we like to call it the "4-to-1 Rule." You can praise your children for just about any positive behavior, from big things like cleaning their room to smaller things like simply saying "Please" and "Thank you." When children receive praise for appropriate behaviors, they are more likely to continue to repeat those behaviors and make them a permanent part of their daily life. The 4-to-1 Rule is a great way to help parents focus on praise.

Q: How does praise improve the parent-child relationship?

A: Giving praise strengthens the relationship between children and their parents because children start to recognize that their parents see the positive things they do, not the just the negatives. It's much like the relationship in a marriage. If Mom cooks dinner every day and Dad never acknowledges it, but one time says, "This doesn't taste good," do you think Mom feels good about herself, wants to cook again, or has good feelings about Dad that day? Probably not. On the other hand, if Dad often tells Mom, "Thanks for cooking for us" or "Your dinner was amazing," Mom will be more encouraged to cook for the family, have more positive feelings about Dad, and feel better about herself. It works the same way for children.

In addition to strengthening the parent-child relationship, using praise has other benefits: children exhibit more of the positive behaviors their parents are praising them for, their self-esteem increases, and both children and parents feel good about what is happening.

Q: How can I use the Praise Box?

A: Going through every day can be a daunting challenge for families. There's the morning routine, getting off to school, after-school activities, dinner, homework, maybe an evening activity, and finally bedtime routine. That's a full, busy day! With all that going on, it can be challenging for parents to remember to praise kids for the positive behaviors they use during those times. The Praise Box is an excellent tool to help remind you to focus on catching your children being good and telling them you appreciate their efforts. In addition to the ongoing verbal praise you use throughout the day, find moments to use the Praise Box by doing the following:     

  • When your child does something you especially want to reinforce (e.g., a new behavior the child is learning or one he or she is struggling with), use the Praise Box. After you verbally praise the child for using the behavior, take a moment to write down the behavior you praised and put it in the Praise Box to review with your child later. Reinforcing the child's behavior immediately in the moment and later when you review the Praise Box is a powerful way to grow and reinforce learning.
  • Include Mom and Dad in the Praise Box. Let your children know it's okay for them to use the Praise Box for you and the things they appreciate about you. This is a great way to model for your children the importance you place on praise and the need to acknowledge and applaud good efforts.
  • Reviewing the Praise Box every day is likely impossible. Make it a point to at least review the contents once a week – maybe on a day and during a time the family chooses, like after religious services, on Saturday mornings before chores, or after a Sunday meal. During this time, take the Praise Box and go through it together as a family. This is another good way to model for your children and emphasize the value you put on praise and catching them being good.   ​