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Descriptive praise - what is it?

Descriptive praise - what is it?

‘Descriptive praise is a powerful motivator,’ says our expert Noël Janis-Norton, director of The Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting Centre in London.

‘You leave out the usual superlatives, for example “you’re so clever”, and instead mention exactly what your child did that was good. For example you might say “you’ve really listened to me”.

‘The more descriptive praises you say, the more your child will want to please you, and the more co-operative and sensible he’ll become. Before long you’ll be able to count on 90% good behaviour – on most days. This has been the experience of every parent I’ve worked with who’s committed to descriptively praising small steps in the right direction at least 10 times a day.’

“I like the idea of descriptive praise, but there isn’t much to praise as my three-year-old can whinge for England! What can I do?” asks mum Zoe Henson, from Suffolk. 

When your son is having a session of whingeing, resist the temptation to talk to him. If you reply to a whingeing child, he will just assume ‘it’s OK to whinge because Mummy and Daddy are still going to talk to me’.

Instead, wait until there’s a pause in the whingeing before you respond to him. It may feel as if he’s never going to stop, but he will pause sooner if you say nothing. Once he’s stopped, wait about five seconds and then say ‘you’re not whingeing now’. 

Of course the first few times you descriptively praise him for stopping whingeing, he might look at you as if you’re nuts. This isn’t the reaction he was expecting! Your son’s response to your descriptive praise might be to say nothing or he might start talking in a friendly, polite voice. But it’s also possible he might start whingeing all over again. He might even start complaining or arguing. 

Once again, muster up the self-control to wait until there’s a pause in this behaviour, then descriptively praise him again for stopping. The more often you’re willing to descriptively praise when your son stops the annoying behaviour, or even just pauses momentarily, the sooner he’ll see that the new way to get your attention is to do things right.

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