I am concerned about child development specialists who disparage praise for young children. Their argument is that a child should learn to depend on his own judgments of how appropriate his actions are and not on the approbation of adults. Sure, some moms and dads overdo it, trying to shape children’s behavior with automatic praise. For instance, they’ll say "Good job" mechanically every time a toddler touches a toy, rather than singling out good behavior for compliments. Nevertheless, I emphatically believe that you should indeed praise your young child!
Carefully crafted praise and encouragement are sunshiny, spiritual vitamins for your toddler! Toddlerhood is a frustrating time of transition (starting at about 15 months old and lasting a year or more). Toddlers are often cranky because they want to get what they want, when they want it — which is immediately. But your little one is also proud of her struggles to master more mature behaviors, such as waiting patiently for a meal or patting a kitty gently rather than pulling its tail.
During this difficult period, many toddlers behave impulsively and sometimes use poor judgment. Their healthy dose of curiosity leads them to try out all sorts of behaviors to see "What will happen if . . . ?" Your youngster may pull out all the interesting wrappers in a big bag of garbage left on the floor to explore their colors and textures. He may tug on the corner of a tablecloth and thereby, alas, topple some breakable dishes.
Toddlers hear plenty of noes from their parents, so this is a wonderful time to make sure that you are crafting lots of positive remarks to praise your child, too. Kids thrive on our admiring words and glances. Unfortunately, many of the adult patients I see as a therapist remember feeling bad because of comments made by their parents and closest caregivers.
How do you praise your toddler constructively?
Use warm, admiring language when your little one is trying hard, for example, not to snatch the toy she covets from a playmate. You might say, “You’re sharing the toys so nicely with Ellen. Do you want to play with the other doll?” Or maybe she is learning how to stack blocks. This is a big step forward in her spatial understanding. Be sure to point that out with detailed words of praise, such as “That’s the way you build a tall tower. You’re putting the smaller blocks on top of the bigger blocks.”
Developmental advances often come with one step forward and a step backward (think of eating with a spoon or starting toilet learning), thus your praising words are important to keep your toddler trying for more mature behaviors.
Use specific, positive words when your toddler completes a task you’ve asked him to do. Admire and acknowledge his helpfulness. You shouldn’t gush, but you should absolutely say "Thank you!" for his cooperation. Thanking is a wonderful way to praise a child. One older toddler whose parents had taken her to the mall to pick up a few things found herself waiting in her stroller a lot longer than expected. When her dad thanked her for being so patient, she responded, "I guess it was necessary!" Her pronunciation was not so clear, but her appreciation of her parent’s praise was unmistakable.
Be a Role Model
Remember that children learn positive values and empathy through your example and gentle comments. Toddlers hear lots about what they should not be touching or doing. Make sure you give plenty of praise when you catch your child being good. Be proud of your ingenuity in thinking up new and loving ways to express your appreciation. Focus on behaviors that are more mature, patient, and loving, and be sure to give specific feedback. Quietly encourage small steps toward success. Frustration is likely to decrease when your helpful words emphasize that trying hard is a very admirable quality.
When you use praise and warm admiration judiciously and generously, you ensure that your toddler will remember kindness. In the future, he will be comfortable and skilled in giving considerate words of praise to others. As one toddler told his mom, who had just buckled him into his car seat, "You did a good job, Mom!"