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Q&A on Praise at Every Age

Teen outside

Q. I want to reward my daughter for her good behavior, but money is tight. What can I do? 

A. Parents who want to increase or encourage desirable behavior can use many different positive consequences or rewards as recognition. The best rewards have nothing to do with the size of one's wallet. Spending a day at the park, offering your undivided attention more often, or allowing your daughter to indulge in a favorite activity (a sleepover at a friend's house, extra TV or phone time) are as valuable as anything you can buy.

Q. Shouldn't kids do some things because they're supposed to? My parents never rewarded me for doing chores - they just tanned my hide if I didn't!

A. Maybe kids should do what we expect, but sometimes they don't. Consequences, either negative or positive, can have a positive affect on their behavior. Use a positive consequence when you want to reinforce or increase a behavior. Use a negative consequence when you want to stop or decrease a problem behavior. Negative consequences should NEVER involve hitting, punching, slapping, ridiculing or belittling children. The emotional and physical pain can be devastating. If you use inappropriate punishment, there's a good chance your kids will respond with unpleasant behavior, too.

Q. My son really wants new gym shoes. I want to reward him for all the hard work he's putting into his homework and getting his grades up, but I can't afford the sneakers he wants. What should I do?

A. It's important to remember that you don't need to buy things for your son every time he does something well. You can simply use praise. A pat on the back, a hug and a kind word will mean a lot. For those times when you want to provide a little extra incentive, consider having your son earn something. For example, he could earn money each time he reaches a specific milestone. He can spend that money however he wants, or save it until he earns enough to buy his own sneakers.

Q. What positive consequences would work best for my kids, ages 6 and 8?

A. Young children like attention (hugs and time spent together) and activities (reading books, playing games). Be sure to give the consequence immediately after the behavior that you want to reinforce. This will help your children make a connection between the reward and the appropriate behavior.

Q. What positive consequences work best for older teens?

A. Teenagers like attention. They also like to have extra time to spend with friends, talk on the telephone, go places and use the car. You can motivate teens by having them earn future privileges, such as money for new clothes or special activities (movies, concerts, etc.).

Q. Am I supposed to give my children a reward every time they do something right?

A. Not necessarily. Praise and positive consequences can be used to increase behaviors that our children do not routinely do. You may need to use positive attention and rewards frequently to get children into the habit of doing a certain behavior. When the behavior becomes routine, then specific praise and rewards for that behavior can be less frequent.

Q. Isn't all this praise stuff really nothing more than bribery?

A. Actually, it's more like a reward for doing something well, much like a paycheck you would receive from an employer. If praise motivates your children to do more positive things, it's valuable. A bribe is when you reward your children for their negative behavior. A prime example is parents waiting in a store checkout line who give in and buy candy for their whining children. This misguided attempt to stop the whining only reinforces the behavior. The children learn that whining gets them candy so they'll use the behavior in the future to get what they want.

Q. My young daughter already goes to bed on time. Why should I praise her for that?

A. Praise your child for going to bed on time to let her know she did exactly what you wanted. You may not need to praise her every time she makes it to bed on time, but occasional praise will help her understand that you appreciate when she does.

Q. I don't know if my daughter does anything to deserve praise. What should I do?

A. You may need to look for small, routine things or attempts at taking positive steps in the right direction. For example, maybe your daughter has good table manners or is particular about her appearance. Maybe she has an interest in music or books. If you look close enough, you will find something positive to praise because your daughter isn't failing at everything.

Q. My son will play with his friends for hours after school and never make it home on time. However, he's been real good about coming home on time this past week. Do I need to keep praising him or is the problem solved?

A. Keep the praise coming. Praise him until the behavior becomes a habit. As more days and weeks go by, and he continues to come home on time, you can praise him less frequently. However, don't completely stop your praise because the behavior might stop, too.

Q. I keep praising my son every time he does something right, but it doesn't seem to reinforce the behavior or change anything. Am I doing something wrong?

A. You may need to alter the way you show approval, or make your praise more specific. You may have to provide different reasons for why he needs to change his behavior, or you may have to add another positive consequence, along with the praise, to jump-start the change. (Think of something your son really enjoys but doesn't get to do that often.) By praising your son, you are building a positive relationship with him. The relationship itself will encourage better behavior, but it can take time. Don't give up!

Q. What do you do if your kid doesn't like to be praised?

A. Your child may not like praise because he or she is uncomfortable giving or receiving a compliment. With each experience your child has, however, the discomfort should decrease. Perhaps your child is uncomfortable only with public displays of praise, especially in front of friends. If that's the case, save your praise for a more private moment.