A fellow Healthy Kids Blogger has already written an excellent post on the difference between parental rewards, bribes, and extortion to modify child behavior, so I will focus my post today on a very particular type of reward that is like catnip for kids: labeled praise.
Also known as "effective praise," labeled praise is a potent form of reward to encourage positive behaviors in your child. Why so powerful? It features the most powerful reward of them all – parental attention – combined with the almost-as-powerful technique of telling children exactly what to do – rather than what not to do – to earn that attention.
Plenty of research suggests that paying attention to desirable behaviors, rather than paying attention to and correcting mild misbehaviors (whining, bargaining, interrupting), is far more effective with children. Research also shows that labeled praise – "Good job sharing your toys!" works better than unlabeled praise "Good job!"
For example: Your child comes home from school, like any other day, but quite unlike any other day, he immediately takes off his muddy shoes right inside the door – just like you've told him 50 million times to do. You are shocked. You grope for words to acknowledge this momentous occasion.
You could say: "Great job!" This is unlabeled praise because it does not refer to the specific behavior you want to encourage. It's also a bit confusing. "Great job" could mean…
"You survived another day!"
"I'm so glad to see you!"
"Good job opening and closing the door."
"Great job remembering to take off your shoes!"
The behavior you want to promote, of course, is "remembering to take off your shoes." Whatever the occasion, make the praise specific to that behavior.
Some other tips for labeled praise:
It's never too late to use labeled praise. If you like the way your child sat so nicely at the dinner table, but completely forgot to comment on it at the time, by all means bring it up when you remember it. "Before you go to bed, let me tell you how much I loved how nicely you stayed in your seat during dinner tonight." Know, however, that praise (and rewards in general) work best to promote positive behaviors when they are delivered as soon as possible after that behavior is displayed. So you have to be looking for and catch good behaviors.
Prepare for labeled praise to feel and sound awkward at first. Many parents I work with balk at the idea of whole sentences of praise, worry that it will sound fake or insincere. So don't make it fake – look for behaviors you truly appreciate in your child and acknowledge them enthusiastically. Don't worry – with enough practice and sincerity you will be providing labeled praise in your own "voice" in very little time. "Great job cleaning up so quickly" will become, depending on your personality and how you choose to communicate with your child, "I love how you cleaned up so quickly!" OR "You are the quicker-picker-upper!" OR "You cleaned that up so fast my head is going to explode [high five]!"
Not sure what to praise? Look for behaviors that you want your child to be exhibiting outside of your home, such as sharing, acting politely, talking kindly, waiting patiently, playing calmly, and so on.
My personal favorites, which I pull out all day, every day:
"Great fast listening!"
"Great job following directions the first time!"