How to encourage your kids without over-praising

Giving your kids positive attention is important, but be wary of creating a mini-Trump.

Dad teaching son to ride bike

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I can be a bit shouty when it comes to being a dad. And both of my boys would agree. When things go pear-shaped at dad’s house, you’d better believe that the neighbours will know about it.

But in the interest of science (and so my neighbours will stop shouting at me to stop shouting at my kids at 6am on a Sunday), I’ve done a bit of reading. And it turns out (surprise, surprise) giving your children positive attention for the good things they do, or even just for normal stuff that decently-behaved kids do, is a far better approach…

When they’re just babies

Kids love making their parents happy, and it starts from infancy.

Whenever you interact with your baby, do it with a smile on your face, and a nice sing-song lilt in your voice. They’ll very quickly learn to associate that with a happy feeling themselves, and pretty soon, they’ll be smiling and laughing and cooing along with you.

The hard part at that stage of their lives is doing that while you’re trying to change a nappy that smells like Satan himself just shat out a stack of burning tyres onto a pile of rotting meat.

I recommend putting a generous smear of Vicks Vaporub on your top lip, and doing your best to breathe (happily) through your mouth.

While they’re toddlers

When your kids are very young, what’s important is building and maintaining a solid bond of happy times. And that means making sure they learn from an early age that you’re interested in what they like, and that you’re there for them.

There are many small things you can do to help.

The simplest of all is to catch their gaze at random times, and give them a smile, or a wink, or a thumbs up.

Even if you’re in the middle of a very tense second session of the cricket on the telly and they’re busy feeding Lego to the cat, a quick acknowledgement that they’re there, and you love them (while you gently rescue the cat) will mean bucketloads to them.

The next easiest—albeit, more time consuming—bit is to chat with them about what they’re doing.

Take the time to hear about what they’ve made out of Lego, or what they saw at the park, or whatever the hell Peppa Pig got up to on the telly that morning while you were at work.

As they get older

The better your kids get at communicating, the more important it is that you maintain a positive attitude with how you communicate.

The easy part: praising them when they do something good, or get something right.

When they’re really little, you can be over the top about it—every child loves an over-the-top, wide-eyed “Yaaaaay!!!” from daddy, complete with lots of clapping and a couple of high-fives.

My boys are well out of their toddler years now, but they still love it when I take a solid interest in what they’re doing, and really enthusiastically congratulate them on a job well done.

Like when my five-year-old landed his first fish a couple of months back (a beautiful little Bream which was just under the legal limit to keep). Holy hell, was I proud of my little man.

“Fish on, dad…” was all he said, while winding on the reel with all his might.

He just about broke my hand (and warmed my heart) when I called for a high-five to celebrate.

Fair warning … don’t overdo it

As with many good things in life (cake, beer, whisky … especially whisky) you (and your kids) can get too much of a good thing.

It’s perfectly fine to praise your kids when they achieve something worth praising—but piling on the compliments when they goof up so badly it’s embarrassing for everyone involved, can lead to issues down the road.

Research has found that over-praising your kid is basically setting them up to develop the kind of narcissism that produces people like Donald Trump. People with an ego so over-inflated it makes a bloated whale carcass on a beach seem like a helium balloon four days after the birthday party has ended.

Meanwhile, research from Stanford University has shown that toddlers who are praised for their efforts, rather than their abilities (whether they are good or bad), will develop better self-motivational skills to use later in life.

So, giving junior a high-five for coming last in a running race is fine, provided that it is for how hard they tried.

But giving them a ribbon “because everyone’s a winner” is horseshit and will lead to your kid living a low-effort life where they expect to be given the keys to the city, even if they’ve just burnt it down.

But what if things go bad?

The advice above might sound like a “tough love” approach—and when your kids aren’t getting the level of praise they think they deserve, there will be tears.

If they’re unhappy, take the time to listen to them. What’s upset them might seem nonsensical. My eldest son, god bless him, has inherited my sporting DNA (we’re both good at random elements of different sports but I doubt we will ever represent Australia in anything).

So it wasn’t a great surprise when Blake recently tried out competitive sport, he came last by a country mile. And he was really upset about it.

But we worked through it by reminding him that mum and dad are here for him, and that slowly taught him that not everything in life will make us happy.

“You can’t win all the time, little man…”

That was the key to getting over a difficult incident. When your kids are little, they will love you and go out of their way to make you happy.

Our job as dads is to make sure that search for love and joy is a two-way street.

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