Are you sick of asking your child over and over again to get their shoes on, put their toys away, hang the towel up on the rack, or be nice to their sibling?
It's important to learn how to get your child to comply more often with your requests now, so you aren't forever picking up after your child, dealing with sibling rivalry, or trying to undo the years of patterns of noncompliance once your child becomes a teenager. You can help your toddler, preschooler, or early elementary child become more willing to comply with your requests with one simple tool - labelled praise.
What is Labelled Praise?
Labelled praise is complimenting, thanking, or otherwise letting your child know specifically what it is that they are doing right. Some examples of labelled praise could include statements such as:
"Thank you for putting your shoes on when I asked you to!"
"Wow, great job putting your blocks back in the toy bin after you finished playing with them!"
"It's so nice to see that you hung your towel back up on the towel rack when you were done with it!"
"I love how you are taking turns and sharing the ball with your sister!"
I Tell My Child "Thanks" and "Good Job" All the Time. How is This any Different?
Kids love to hear you tell them when they are doing a good job, and saying "thanks" or "good job" is a great way to model and teach manners, or generally just let your child know you appreciate them. The problem with unlabelled (or general) praise, is that it doesn't actually tell your child what exactly it is that you are thanking them for, or what it is that they have done well. So that leaves it all up to your child's imagination.
How Labelled Praise Increases Your Child's Compliance
Labelled praise works well for many reasons. Below are three ways that using labelled praise throughout the day can, over time, increase your child's compliance.
Labelled praise tells your child exactly what it is that you like about what they are doing.
When you use unlabelled praise, your child might have a very different idea about what you are praising them for. Simply saying "thanks" to your child when they are jumping off the couch onto the floor, may mean to you that you are thanking them for standing on the floor instead of the furniture. To your child, it may mean "thanks for jumping from the couch to the floor". So guess what you are going to see more of? That's right - the very behaviour you don't want to see - standing on the furniture to jump onto the floor.
By instead saying to your child "good job for keeping your feet on the floor" or "thank you for getting off of the couch as soon as I asked you to", you are being very specific in what you are praising your child for.
Children's brains are not fully formed, and they are not yet proficient at extrapolating meaning from vague comments, even if the meaning is obvious to you as an adult. Children are concrete thinkers, and are just beginning to be able to think more abstractly. Labelled praise has the advantage of being very specific, so children aren't left trying to understand what you mean when you say "good job", "nice work", or "thanks".
Even as adults, we sometimes don't really know what someone means when they simply thank us or tell us we did a good job. We have our own interpretation of what was meant, but you're not a mind reader, and neither is your child. You know what you mean when you give unlabelled praise, but the more specifically you can tell your child what you are praising them for, the more likely they will also understand exactly what you liked about what they did.
So how does this increase compliance? Using labelled praise to intentionally thank or compliment your child for doing what you asked or told them to do, when you asked or told them to do it, ensures they have the same understanding of what it is you are wanting them to do, so they are more likely to be able to do it to your liking.
Labelled praise provides your child with specific, positive attention
Labelled praise works by providing lots of positive attention to the behaviours you really want to see. Positive attention is rewarding. There is no need to give stickers, or toys, or money, or extravagant outings. Kids want your attention! They crave it! They want you to notice all of the great things they are doing, and that in itself is often motivation enough for them to keep doing it.
Children love attention. Let's face it - we all do! You like to hear when your boss appreciates the hard work you put into your job, or when your spouse acknowledges how tidy the house is and thanks you for a nice meal after a long day at work. Just think about how discouraging it can be when these things are never mentioned or acknowledged - or if your boss or spouse were to just say "good job" or "thanks".
It's a lot more meaningful when you let your kids know exactly what it is you love and appreciate about them, just like you like to hear exactly what it is your boss or spouse love or appreciate about you. The more your child can get your attention through their positive behaviour, the less likely they will be to try to seek your attention through more negative behaviours. They begin to feel noticed and appreciated for who they are, and for the joy they bring to your life.
It's too often we tip-toe quietly when our kids are playing nicely together, so we can have a little bit of time to get the housework done or catch up with family and friends, or we don't recognize our kids' efforts simply because we expect them to comply with our requests, that we end up missing a lot of great opportunities to let them know what they're doing right.
The external positive attention you give to your child for engaging in the kinds of behaviours you want to see, turns over time into internal positive regard. Try to give your child at least 10 positives for every 1 negative, and watch their self-esteem and self-confidence skyrocket over time!
Your child's compliance will increase because they feel acknowledge, loved, and appreciated for their efforts, they feel good about themselves and proud of the things they can do well, and they get lots of praise and positive attention for the behaviours that you want to see. In turn, not only will your child want to do well for you and listen to and comply with your requests, but they will also have less of a need to seek out negative attention, since they get plenty of attention for their positive behaviour.
Labelled praise encourages your child to do the opposite of what they are currently doing
Not only does labelled praise work to increase the behaviours you really want to see, but it can also have a huge impact on decreasing the behaviours you don't
want to see! Bonus!
How does that work?
If you are intentional about the kinds of labelled praise you give to your child, you can decrease your child's undesirable behaviours simply by using labelled praise to provide attention to the behaviour that is exactly the opposite of what you don't want to see. Opposite behaviours are incompatible, so your child's undesirable behaviour automatically decreases as their positive or desirable behaviour increases.
For example, if you want your child to quit playing rough with a sibling, instead of continuously reminding them to stop hitting their sister, or waiting for the behaviour to occur and then punishing them for it, try paying attention to the times that your child is NOT hitting their sister, and praise them enthusiastically when you see the opposite behaviour.
Make sure to label what your child is doing
that you like, not what they aren't doing. You wouldn't say "thanks for not hitting your sister" (that will actually likely increase the hitting over time). You would say to your child "Thank you for using such gentle hands with your sister, she really likes playing with you when you're being gentle with her!"... and watch your child beam with pride!
Over time, the behaviour that is rewarded with attention and positive feelings will increase (your child will begin using gentle hands more often with his sister), and as a natural result, the behaviour you don't want to see will decrease, since playing rough can't be done at the same time as using gentle hands.
Try using labelled praise throughout your day. I know it's scary to interrupt the quiet, positive times your child is playing on their own and it's easy to overlook the times your child is compliant when you expect them to be anyways, but you will notice over time, that the effort you put into showering your child with labelled praise throughout the day, will have huge benefits for years to come!