Parents show up at my seminars desperate for more effective ways to improve cooperation. That’s because lack of cooperation can be maddening; it often makes us feel like we have to nag, threaten, and maybe even shout, just to get our children to do the simplest thing. Even when parents realise that what they’re doing isn’t working to get cooperation, they often don’t know what to do instead. The good news is that parents can learn simple, do-able strategies that improve cooperation and prevent most misbehaviour. In my books I explain these strategies in detail. This article is an overview of the first strategy I always teach parents: Descriptive Praise. This strategy will help your children want to cooperate the first time you ask—not every single time because no child is a robot or a saint, but you can achieve ninety per cent cooperation.
And Descriptive Praise works quickly. If you have an easy-going child, you’ll notice positive results within a few days. If your child has a trickier temperament, it may take a few weeks before you see significant improvements in behaviour. My most recent book, ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys’, was published last month. What follows is an excerpt from that book. If you have daughters, you’ll find that Descriptive Praise works just as well for girls.
Descriptive Praise is the quickest, easiest and most effective way to start guiding your son into more sensible habits. With Descriptive Praise you leave out the usual superlatives: Well done! Good boy! Wonderful! You’re so clever! Instead, mention exactly what your child did that was OK:
‘You’re being gentle with the baby.’
‘You’re chewing with your mouth closed.’
‘You did what I told you to do as soon as I asked.’
The more Descriptive Praises you say, the more your son will want to please you, so the more cooperative and sensible he will become. Before too long you will be able to count on ninety percent good behaviour – on most days. That has been the experience of every parent who has committed to Descriptively Praising small steps in the right direction at least ten times a day. Descriptive Praise works because it feels good and because it helps your son to see himself as cooperative, sensible, helpful, kind, etc. Family life will become much calmer, easier and happier.
Q: Are you sure my son will realise I'm praising him if I don’t tack on ‘Well done’ or ‘That’s fantastic’ at the end? How will he know it’s praise?
A: You don’t need to worry. He will know that this is praise because you will be talking about what he did right, because your face will look pleased, and because your tone of voice will sound pleased.
Q: When I praise my son, sometimes he turns right round and does the exact opposite. It seems like the Descriptive Praise makes him cross. I’m tempted to let sleeping dogs lie and say nothing. What should I do instead?
A: This doesn't happen nearly as often as parents assume it will. But every once in a while your son will immediately do the opposite of what he has just been praised for. It could be that he is very impulsive; just the mention of the behaviour reminds him that he could be misbehaving. Or the positive attention might make him uncomfortable, especially if he is in the habit of getting attention by misbehaving. Or maybe he has been told off too much; he might then go into revenge mode, thinking to himself ‘Oh, Mum and Dad are happy that I’m doing that? Well, I'll just do the opposite.’
Be willing to wait for a pause in the annoying behaviour. While you’re waiting, remember to look at him so that he knows you’re not ignoring him, which might lead to even more attention-seeking.
Q: How am I going to find the time to say Descriptive Praises in the morning when I’m trying to manage the chaos and get out of the house on time?
A: When we’re in a hurry, it often happens that we give an instruction and then walk away to take care of something else. But when you walk off, you are not there to notice whether your son did what you asked. If he did, there is no reinforcement, such as Descriptive Praise or a smile of appreciation. And if he did not cooperate, there is no follow-through. Children learn to tune out instructions because no one seems to be noticing if they cooperate or not.
The solution is to stay in the room and pay attention to whether your son does what you’ve asked. If it feels as if you could not possibly spare the time to do this, remember how much time is wasted repeating, reminding, cajoling, negotiating, bribing, telling off, etc. As you Descriptively Praise and practise the other Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting strategies, your son will get into the habit of taking you seriously and cooperating.