*Mean what you say. Children figure out very quickly that you don’t really mean “we’re leaving” when you say that. Or that “time for bed” means they can dawdle for another 10-30 minutes. If you are not seriously ready to enforce those things, don’t say them! This is such a hard concept for parents because it’s so tempting to say it when you’re kinda, sorta thinking about doing that. You’re announcing your future intentions, but it really communicates the wrong thing. If you must say anything, call out, “I’m starting to think about leaving (or bedtime) and will be serious about it in 5-30 minutes!” I’m not seriously suggesting you do this, but making the point that you should speak accurately. If you overuse or misuse the “time to go” phrase, it loses its meaning to the child. Just don’t say it until you are ready to focus on the child and use all your attention to get him to comply (to leave or go to bed, etc.).
*Use “You worked hard on that” statements instead of “That’s so good” or “You’re so smart/talented”. Emphasize the process rather than the product. This idea is from a wonderful book called Nurture Shock. It explains that emphasizing the effort helps children feel they are in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence or talent takes it out of the child’s control, and decreases their abilities to respond in the face of failure. Those who think that innate intelligence is the key to their success begin to discount the importance of effort, as in, ‘I’m smart so I don’t need to work hard’, or even worse, ‘if I work hard it shows I’m not naturally smart’. Children need to be taught that the brain is like a muscle: giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. This may sound like a small and inconsequential difference, but as I’ve mentioned, I’m a big believer in the power of words and the messages they give. I think if you get in the habit of saying these more productive phrases, your child will be better off.
When she is doing artwork say, “Tell me about your picture” rather than, “That looks nice” or “You’re a good artist.” It opens up conversation and encourages her creativity, rather than giving a quick, meaningless compliment. Also, it’s better to say, “Looks like you’re having fun!” rather than “You’re good at that.” Point out that hard work can be fun.
*Be specific in your praise. This principle is a natural extension of the previous point. If you always give trite, general compliments they are not very meaningful and don’t necessarily reinforce the behavior you want. It’s better to be as specific as you can about what the child did that you approve of (“I liked how you colored on the paper.” “You’re sharing your toys with your sister so nicely.”) It takes effort at first to examine the situation and identify exactly what behavior you want to praise, but soon you will get in the habit of being more specific and it will come easily and have great rewards. You can also praise in the “running commentary” fashion. As they are trying to get dressed to go out and play in the snow, “You are working hard to get those snow pants on. The zipper is tricky sometimes but you kept working at it. You are learning to be independent. It’s fun to be able to get your whole snow outfit on by yourself!” etc.
You don’t want to discourage a child who is trying out something new, but sometimes you want to teach the correct way. You can praise and then offer to teach, but try it this way: If your child has made her bed [badly], say, “I see that you are learning to make the bed just like Mommy! Would you like me to show you how I get the wrinkles out?” or “I appreciate that you are learning to wipe off the counters, do you want me to show you how I get it sparkly?” Notice you don’t say, ‘do you want me to show you how to get the wrinkles out’, which implies her efforts weren’t enough. Instead this is just an idea to offer them (to learn how to get the wrinkles out). She very well may say, “No, I like it this way.”
You can also use self referenced comments about positive behavior. “I feel so happy when my room is clean!” “I worked hard on that project and now I feel proud that is it completed.” etc.