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Praise With Emotion, Discipline Without

Children absolutely love praise.“Great job! I’m so proud of you!” Perhaps you’ve seen a child standing taller, reflecting a rise in self-confidence. A child may respond with a surge of excited energy. Words of praise embody enthusiastic emotion to celebrate an accomplishment.

The positive, feel good emotion penetrates to the very core of the child’s identity. This helps to define how a young person sees himself. Praise supports a young person’s belief that ‘I am worthy of attention. I am capable. I belong.’ Positive praise is a force of emotional energy that can last for hours, days, or even a life time.

For best results, praise must be associated with a specific action or behavior and be worthy of reward. The praise should be genuine and sincere. When a child has a clear understanding of what action the praise was for, the emotion has a solid foundation. A child understands how to repeat the desired behavior.

A more effective form of praise sounds like this, “I am so impressed you spoke up for yourself. I know that can be scary. You can be proud of that.”When you encourage a child to self-generate that feeling of pride, they have power over their own emotional experience. Without this encouragement, there is a risk of training young people to be needy for feedback. They may rely on external praise to feed good about themselves. Without constant praise, these children feel more insecure than ever.

When praise is overused, vague or insincere, it may lose its value. The emotion conveyed is manipulative and loses the desired effect. For example, one student received multiple school rewards for being a good citizen. When asked what she did to receive such awards, she said, “I don’t really know, I guess it’s not that important.” She gave her ribbons to other students or stuffed them in a drawer. Insincere praise for the purpose of building self-esteem becomes meaningless. Children are masters at pretending. They know when adults are faking it.

In parenting terms, the opposite of praise may be discipline.Discipline is often delivered with stern or negative emotions. However, the word discipline literally comes from the word disciple, to direct or teach. Effective coaching does not require negative emotions. When corrections are filled with negative emotions, young people likely hear little of what is said. Instead, a child will focus in on the feeling of shame, embarrassment, or guilt they feel. Strong, uncomfortable emotions override rational thinking. Negative emotions become negative thoughts of self-worth, ‘I can’t do anything right. What is wrong with me?’ If this is repeated often enough, temporary feelings will become long term realities.

Praise/discipline should not be confused with reward/punishment.Reward/punishment follows the carrot and stick approach, a technique used to train horses. The carrot/ stick is an emotionally manipulative technique used to control behavior. The carrot is used as incentive, while the stick threatens punishment for bad behavior. I asked professional horse trainer Melissa Mershon how effective the carrot/ stick approach is for animals, and here is what she said: “Horses understand love and affection much more than punishment.

Animals seek guidance and security more than anything else. It’s important to deliver clear communication of what you want and what you don’t want. The stick works at first, but then it comes with a price. Animals lose a sense of trust and will do anything to avoid pain. Eventually, they rebel. They quit.”

E-motions are energy in motion. They are an incredible tool for teaching children, and have the power to shape a child’s identity for a life time. With great power comes great responsibility. So remember this: Praise with emotion, discipline without. 

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