SMART Praise

These days, kids get rewarded for everything. Everyone gets a medal at soccer tournaments and elementary schools no longer fail kids. There are no clearly defined winners and losers anymore, and for the most part, that is a good thing. We don’t need a handful of kids idolized while the remaining 98% stand by feeling like they’re not good enough. And we don’t want kids getting left behind in school while their peers move forward into the next grade.

I get it. For the most part.

However, our kids are being positively reinforced so much in sports, school, extra-curricular activities, and clubs, they’re learning that praise doesn’t even mean much anymore. Could too much positivity be bad for them?

I certainly think so.

How can you prevent ‘praise saturation’ and loss of potency as you deliver a compliment?

By using what I call SMART Praise.

Specific Praise

When you praise your child, be specific so your child knows exactly what you’re praising them for. Rather than broad generalizations or comments directed at their ego, praise their efforts. Praise the process they’re in as they work towards getting better.

“You’re so smart,” is ego-directed praise. Be more specific and focus on praising the process.

“Wow, look at that math test! I know you worked really hard on math and it shows!” You’re speaking to your child’s efforts and not their ego. Ego-based praise often leaves them wondering if you’ll only love them when they’re “good”.

Measurable Praise

How many times can you positively reinforce your child’s behaviour each day? Your goal is not to constantly beat yesterday’s old record because that too would get old after a while. Rather, aim to speak positively and specifically at least once a day. Perhaps once in the morning, and again in the evening.

Or, if you notice an unwanted behaviour creeping up in your child, consider doing an experiment and quadruple your specific praise for wanted behaviours over the course of a week and see what effect positive praise has on both behaviours.

For example, let’s say your son has an incredibly messy room. You’re going to hone in on that behaviour and take steps to encourage him to form better habits by using specific praise. Each time he cleans up his room, whether or not you told him to or helped him out, you’ll praise him for taking responsibility of his possessions.

Then work towards the ultimate goal. The day when you can say, “You must feel proud of yourself for cleaning up your room without me nagging you.”

Achievable Praise

One or two specific praises a day is doable if you have one or two children. But what if you have more kids and you’re beginning to sound like a monotonous, broken record? Is it achievable for YOU to praise every single child every single morning?

“Janie, I loved that you helped me make breakfast. You are so responsible. Andrew, thank you for helping me clean up the dishes. That was so kind. Jimmy, it’s nice to see you get your backpack ready by yourself. You’re growing up. And Tina and Ken – thank you for taking out the garbage. Great teamwork!”

Of course, none of these comments are bad. But if you end up bunching them together and rattling them off in one breath as the kids leave for school, it hardly serves a purpose other than making your kids wonder what might be wrong with you.

Choose wisely. Which positive behaviour was most uncharacteristic among your kids this morning? Which behaviour needs the most reinforcement? Which child needs kind words the most this morning? Instead of shooting off a bunch of half-hearted praises before they leave for the day, think it through and consider your words.

Realistic Praise

I get it. Sometimes it feels like we’re grasping at straws when our child is going through a particularly tough time. What does realistic praise look like when your child is constantly whining and being rude?

“You’re doing a good job beating up your sister!”

“Your vocal range was especially beautiful when you complained about your homework!”

Although there may be a time and place for sarcasm, it’s best to refrain from commenting in this way. Instead, set up your child for success.

When your child has had a long day at school and you know they’ll be picking a fight with their little sister yet again, encourage them to take a break in their room by themselves. Let them know that when they’re rested, you’d love to have them join you in the kitchen.

Or if whining about homework is an issue, work to stop it before it starts. Say, “Heh, I know this homework has been really intense lately. What do you think about getting an extra bit of TV time when you’re all done?” See if that doesn’t help them get rid of annoying behaviours and earn some positive praise for themselves.

Transformational Praise

Transformational praise is a way you can compliment your child by engaging them in a meaningful conversation. You’re rewarding them when you show genuine interest in their work or an experience they’ve had.

For example, your daughter proudly plays you a new song she’s been learning on the piano. Rather than saying, “Wow, what an amazing pianist you are!” talk to her about the song. Ask her if she likes it. What’s her favourite part? Does she see a picture in her head when she plays it? And then tell her your favourite part of the song.

By rewarding her with transformational praise, you’re building into your relationship by accessing your child’s emotions. Your time and genuine interest will go a long way to make your child feel special.

Smart Praise

One thing that I have learned from my parents is to teach my children to not become dependent on praise from others. I grew up depending on others for praise and I’m not proud to admit that. I’ve learned to ask my children after they brag to me about their accomplishments, “how does this make you feel? I’m proud of you for this report card but I won’t always be here to give you a pat on the head. I want you to be proud of you too!”

When children realize that they can pride themselves in their hard work, you know your SMART praise has done it’s job.


HB is a roller coaster father, one minute he is ecstatic about his children, the next he wonders if life will ever get any better. A long standing member of the 'I yell at my kids' club, he writes with passion and an analytical mind. Dissecting and separating the nuanced strategies that make a good parent great. He experiments with parenting techniques on his 3 year old so you don't have to.

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