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  • Writer's pictureJade Kestian

The #1 Parenting Hack That Will Change Your Life

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

(TLDR: Use behavior specific praise and praise kids more than you correct them; a 4:1 ratio of praise to correction is ideal and hard to achieve in practice)

Kids can be sweet, hilarious, and overall, just amazing. They can also grate on nerves to the point that you want to tear your hair out. Whether they are playing with loud toys in the living area, waking you up at 5:30am, not complying with requests or commands, or hitting their siblings, kids can be a lot. It is no wonder that many parents and guardians struggle to manage their children's behavior. So what is a tired, overworked parent to do when saying "stop doing that!" doesn't seem to be working?

Research shows that positive reinforcement works to change behavior and improve parent child relationships. One of the simplest and most effective ways to use positive reinforcement is through the use of behavior specific praise (aka labeled praise). If you are thinking, "Why should I reward my kid for just doing what they are supposed to do?" you are not alone and I encourage you to read this post.

Reinforcement strategies, such as praise, focus on rewarding positive behaviors to strengthen those behaviors over time. Responding mostly to misbehaviors, even if done well, is not the most “thorough” way to change behavior. Praising your child when they do what you like is important for several reasons: 1) It helps create a positive relationship with your child and 2) It promotes the behaviors you like.

Sounds simple enough, right? Using this strategy correctly is easier said than done. Read on to learn more!

How to Use Behavior Specific Praise

  1. Identify What You Want (not just what you don't want): If you are like most parents of high-spirited children, you probably spend a lot of time noticing what you wish your kid would stop doing. "Stop interrupting," "Stop jumping on the couch," "Please for the love of everything holy, stop pulling the dog's tail!" But brains don't like negatives. As discussed in my blog post about commands, it is important to consider what specifically you want your child to be doing so that you can target that. It may help to consider the opposite of the "problem." While you may want to say, "Stop leaving your shoes in the hallway!" it is less likely to get the results you want. After reflecting, you realize that what you want is for your kid to put their shoes on the shoe rack.

  2. Use “behavior specific praise”: Praise lets children know that they are on the right track. Most kids love adult attention of any kind, especially praise. To be even more clear about what you are praising, use behavior specific praise. For example, when your child puts their dish in the sink, instead of just saying, “Thank you,” you would say, “Thank you for putting your dish in the sink! I love it when you do what I ask right away!” This communicates exactly what it is that you liked about what they did, so that there is no confusion.

  3. Keep it positive: Be enthusiastic with your praise. Focus on being authentic and cultivate a sense of gratitude so that the excitement is genuine. If you don’t feel grateful, try to portray gratitude in your tone of voice. Avoid falling into the trap of using “backhanded compliments,” such as “Thank you for finally cleaning up your room; you almost never do that when I ask you to!” or “It’s about time you took out the trash, thanks for that." Even if you mean well in saying these things, it can be discouraging to hear about old “baggage” and so the praise may not be effective in promoting the behavior and improving the relationship. Keep conversations about past misbehaviors out of your praise statements. Keep the praise positive and focused on the present.

  4. Catch'em being good!: Sometimes it can be hard to find something to praise... especially if the kid is very high spirited and the parent child relationship has started to deteriorate. That's why focusing on finding opportunities to praise is so important. Whenever a kid is doing what they are supposed to be doing is the perfect time to use behavior specific praise to encourage more positive behavior. This shows your kid that those behaviors lead to positive attention from you AND can help to combat the accidentally reinforcing power of “negative attention” for misbehavior.

  5. Praise MORE than you redirect/command (the “4:1” rule): If you find yourself spending more time redirecting and correcting your child than praising, you are not alone. It is very common, especially if your child is active, energetic, or strong willed. Unfortunately, as common as this dynamic is, it is not the most effective for fostering a positive relationship or achieving compliance. If you want behaviors to change, praising more than you correct is the gold standard. If you can praise 4 times for every 1 time you respond to a problem behavior, you will be well on your way to shaping behavior and improving your relationship with your child.

The steps are simple, but can take time to implement well. The families I work with often struggle to catch their children being good and reach the "4 to 1" ratio unless they practice intentionally for several weeks. With consistent practice though, families often discontinue therapy after 12 weeks or so (about 3 months) and are happy with the progress they make. Identifying the behaviors you like, being specific and positive, catching your child being good, and using the "4 to 1" rule can transform your relationship with your child. Still, these strategies are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of managing behavior with a high-spirited, anxious, irritable, or traumatized child. If you try these strategies and find you still need help managing your child's emotional and behavioral health, I encourage you to seek out a qualified therapist with expertise working with children to provide some additional support and guidance. There is always more to learn!

Additional reading

McNeil, C. B., & Hembree-Kigin, T. L. (2010). Parent-Child Interaction Therapy Second Edition.

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