I always thought I should praise kids. Apparently I was wrong.

Over the past week, I’ve been conducting an experiment. One of the kids I see for physical therapy has difficult behaviors, so I usually provide lots of praise to motivate and reinforce any good behavior. This week however, I tried to keep the praise to a minimum and offer encouraging questions instead.

I said things like, “How did that go?” “How does this feel?” “Where do you feel this stretch?” “Why did that happen?” “What are you going to do now?” And you know what happened? He was actually much more cooperative!

I got the idea from the book Parenting with Love and Logic. I was surprised when I came across a section talking about why encouragement is better than praise.

The authors describe the difference between praise and encouragement like this: Praise is evaluating a child’s performance and telling them that it was good, while encouragement is asking the child to evaluate their own performance and problem solve on their own. Praise requires the parent to do all the thinking, but encouragement puts all the thinking on the child.

I actually used this technique with all of the kids on my caseload this week. What surprised me most was that they all looked at me like no one had ever asked them these questions before. It seemed like no one had ever asked them to evaluate how their body feels and then to do something about it.

I think kids with disabilities are often praised for ignoring their bodies while adults solve the problems. They’re praised for ignoring the pain from surgery or the discomfort of stretching their calves and for paying attention to the distraction we’re providing. They’re taught to ignore their bodily functions like hunger and going to the bathroom simply because they have to rely on adults to do these activities. They’re praised for ignoring their frustration when they can’t do something or ignoring their loneliness when they’re left out.

The thing is, as a parent, it’s natural to want to shield your child from emotional and physical pain. You don’t want them to feel the pain of surgery. You don’t want them to feel the pain of other people hurting them. You are also only one human being who has constraints on your time and can’t attend to your child’s bodily needs every second of every day.

However, if we want to raise kids with disabilities who are able to solve their own problems, then we need to encourage them to pay attention to their own bodies and think for themselves instead of always jumping in and trying to solve problems for them.

Instead of praising your child for being brave and not crying after surgery, ask them, "How does your body feel right now? What does your body need?" Instead of praising them for eating so quickly when you're in a rush, as them, “How does your tummy feel? Are you hungry?” And instead of praising them for not reacting to the kids that left them out, ask them, “How does that make you feel? And what are you going to do about it?”

After a week of practicing this skill I still consistently offer up “Perfect!” and “Beautiful!”, so I know this isn’t easy to do. It takes time and practice to change habits like this. However, if you put in the effort, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how it can improve both your life and your child’s life.

I wholeheartedly agree now that encouragement is way better than praise! I wonder what would happen if you tried the same experiment in your life?

What is one instance you could switch from praise to encouragement with your child this week? I’d love to hear what you plan to change in the comments section below! Write it down so we can all cheer you on!

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