Praising Boys Well

100 Tips for Parents and Teachers


By Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer

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Boys need encouragement and praise to develop healthy self esteem, but they can also feel swamped and suffocated by what they see as constant commentary on their every move-and as a result they can be inclined to act out. How can parents strike the right balance between giving effective praise and not going overboard? How can we help our boys to feel proud without inspiring a false sense of confidence or making them praise dependent? Praising Boys Well shows parents and teachers alike what boys need to hear along the developmental continuum and offers countless tips on what to encourage; which phrases to use-and to avoid; when incentives are appropriate; and how to incorporate praise into our boys’ everyday activities.


Other books available from Da Capo Press by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer
Praising Girls Well
Talking to Tweens
Raising a Self-Starter
Raising Confident Boys
Raising Confident Girls
Raising Happy Kids

For Richard, with deep thanks for
his love and unswerving support

This book is for parents with boys of any age—babies, toddlers, or teenagers—and for teachers. Most of the tips can be used generally with any boy, but several relate to particular stages of development and show how our praise style should change as our boys grow. One of the most important lessons we have learned over the last two to three decades is how much children, regardless of their age, benefit from receiving praise from parents and teachers. Children respond far better to positive feedback and encouragement than they do to threats, criticism, and punishment. Many parents and teachers once found what they felt to be flattering words hard to use, especially with boys, and although some still find it hard, most people are now sufficiently familiar and comfortable with common phrases to give praise in good measure.
Praise has been viewed as the way to boost children's self-esteem, and to help them feel confident, and to fulfill their potential and be at ease with themselves. Many don't realize that using praise also has wider benefits for individual children and for society, because it can help to encourage self-discipline and moral behavior. However, nothing about parenting or children is straightforward. Boys, for example, often react to praise in different ways from girls and need their confidence reinforced in different areas. We are also beginning to realize that if praise is overused, used for particular personal motives, or directed at the wrong kind of activity, it may actually be unhelpful. When praise is overused or overhyped or belies the truth, boys may either become praise-dependent and require constant affirmation and approval or become indifferent to praise. Another possibility is that they may start to mistrust either the message or the messenger, wasting everyone's breath, or they might come to think they're superclever and special and annoy people with their self-importance, when in truth they're simply normal. Boys in particular can also feel swamped and suffocated by what they can experience as a continuous positive or negative commentary on their every move and are inclined to act out against the microscopic attention and constant judgment.
In addition, there is growing concern that overexposure to praise has led to children being ruined by rewards, dulled by "dumbing down," incapacitated by anxiety, or, at the very least, easily wrong-footed when faced with real challenges. They may then hide their anxiety with diversionary displays of daring and bravado in other spheres. And there's the worry that boys might be softened by pampering. For praise to be reliably effective, we have to be careful to understand fully its pros and cons, its wider value, and the approaches that are safest given boys' particular sensitivities.
This is what this book sets out to achieve. The early chapters (1-6) present the basic principles, tactics, and purposes. Chapter 1 develops an understanding of praise that underpins the thinking behind the one hundred tips that are spread equally among the remaining ten chapters. Chapter 4 enables readers to reflect upon the important features of child development and so relate the principles and tactics to the age and developmental stage of any particular boy. The later chapters (7-10) consider the subtleties and potential dangers of praise, and Chaper 11, the final chapter, invites the reader to self-reflect. Each tip stands alone and can be dipped into at random, but readers may like to read at least the introduction to each chapter in turn to gain an initial overview. This is a book to revisit on many occasions.
To show what this book covers, here are some questions and possible answers to consider. Think about why the different responses could matter.
When your son does particularly well, which might you say?
• "I'm really proud of you for managing that!"
• "I hope you feel proud of yourself—you should."
• "You probably feel really proud to have achieved that."
• "I feel so proud of you and proud that you're my child."
If your son makes the school soccer team, would you . . . ?
• Say, "Great! How many others tried out for how many places?"
• Promise to continue trips to the soccer field or park to develop his skills further.
• Go as a family to every match to give him support.
• Attend yourself and shout encouragement from the sideline.
When your son tidies his room without being told, would you . . . ?
• Give him a hug and bring him a treat to eat.
• Say thanks, but laugh and say you wonder how long it will last.
• Give him money and hope this will persuade him to carry on the good work.
• Comment favorably on the improvement and ask what triggered the idea.
As you will discover in this book, praising well is a subtle art, and the way in which you phrase it can make a huge difference in whether a child feels freed and encouraged by your comments or, despite your good intentions, becomes anxious or angry because he senses a pressure to do even better. As you read through the one hundred tips that follow, you will come to appreciate the benefit of beginning most of your comments with you rather than I; of encouraging your son to judge his own efforts rather than rely on your view; of not taking any credit for his success; and of focusing on his reasons for and feelings about doing well, not yours.
Now read on!

Chapter 1
Understanding Praise and How Boys React to It
Children love praise; of course they do, for most of us thrive on compliments and appreciation. Despite the pleasure it gives, children should be praised for more than just the delight praise brings them or the help it gives them to try harder. Praise needs to be a central part of raising children because it meets most of their fundamental needs. In other words, praise is not merely a bit of luxury, some additional fancy wrapping that we can leave out if we prefer. Children need to feel important and significant to someone, to believe that someone cares enough to cherish them, and this is at least as important as being properly fed and clothed. Children need to feel secure and to trust and rely on that care, which they can when they feel valued and central to their carer's life. They also need friendly and warm guidance, support, and direction about how they should lead their lives, so they need to hear what it is they should do rather than how they constantly fall short and disappoint. And in order for children to flourish, they need to know and be told they are capable, are enjoyed, and make others happy—particularly their parents.
Praise tends to be thought of as something spoken, put into words, but we can convey our pleasure, approval, and appreciation in many ways. Hugs, smiles, rewards, and touches, as we see in Chapter 6, all have their part to play and can sometimes be more effective because they can be more spontaneous and more direct. Even the spoken vocabulary of praise is more varied than at first appears, for the term praise includes many types of phrases and expressions that convey approval, appreciation, acknowledgment, and pure delight. The differences are important, as will become clear as the tips are explored.
It is deeply frustrating to realize that not all praise is helpful: Just when we thought we were getting it right, people are saying we could be getting it wrong. The good news is that it is not complicated to work out which styles and phrases are likely to support achievement and which sentiments can become confusing or burdensome and could cause problems. Effective relationships are always those that manage to keep a range of needs, styles, and goals in balance. The essence of constructive praise is that it is useful and encouraging: It provides relevant, detailed information; it is believable, so it is neither hollow nor false; and it may also show the way forward. Most important, the child should remain in full charge of his progress and be given opportunities to become confident in his ability to judge things for himself.
The energy that enables boys to take advantage of opportunity is self-belief. Self-belief is fueled when boys feel genuinely capable because they know in detail what it was they did right (which means they know they can do it again), because they have acknowledged the mistakes they made in the past and now know how to avoid them (which means failures have been faced, not ignored), and because they feel certain that they are unconditionally loved and accepted for who they are, not for matching up to someone else's ideal or for something they're especially good at. It is rarely helpful to celebrate every success and ignore every failure. Just as certain types of praise can be unhelpful, criticism can be constructive—when mistakes are acknowledged, identified, and ironed out, and the adjustments required are made clear.
Boys do need affirmation and acknowledgment as much as girls, but given the peer pressure, among older boys especially, to be "cool," to achieve without apparently trying, any praise or reward needs to be offered discreetly and with minimum fuss. Boys are not only readily embarrassed by overt praise (whether given in front of others or in private), but they are also more suspicious of it than girls. They are more inclined to feel potentially manipulated by praise and to accept it less willingly because they detect an ulterior motive.
When given to older boys, praise needs to be either matter of fact—very descriptive of what has been achieved—or short. Young men tend to clothe themselves in confidence, sometimes to a degree that masks an underlying fear of failure. When boys fail to deliver what's expected, it is often because they have been cavalier about the amount of preparation that was necessary and so aren't able to perform. In this event, the most useful response is to encourage them to look in detail at what they did not manage well so they understand what they need to do next time. They should not be allowed to hide behind some generalized assertion that it will be okay next time because they'll concentrate better, have a different teacher, or start to knuckle down sooner.
Boys need to be overtly valued by adult males, their fathers especially. From the age of about eight, boys typically begin to dismiss girls and other females and increasingly challenge their mothers and female teachers as they explore their male identity and assert their masculinity. Female approval may have less value and impact in their eyes than male approval. But many fathers find it hard to praise their sons, for fear of making them "soft" among other reasons.
Boys of all ages, but particularly younger boys, can find it quite hard to concentrate and apply themselves. "Stickability" is their big weakness. They are very easily bored, diverted, and distracted. In order to encourage boys to stay committed and focused, all positive feedback needs to be served up a little and often but always discreetly. If we wait until the end of whatever it is they're supposed to be working on, it could be too late; they may have lost the thread long before.
Boys need to be encouraged to become better organized and to plan ahead more effectively. They may need incentives and rewards to help them attend to their work. But being generally more attuned to power, boys are quick to bargain over the rewards offered and soon try to twist them to their advantage. Boys will need to be encouraged and admired for their personal qualities that show caring and sharing, friendship and reliability, not simply their strength or tactics that ensure success.

Chapter 2
The Purpose of Praise
What is praise for? It may seem an unnecessary question to ask, but it is important to be clear about what it is we are trying to achieve to help us check whether what we say and do is all-around beneficial with no negative side effects. For example, of course parents want to help their son grow up with good self-esteem: Self-esteem and strong self-belief are, indeed, valuable attributes, but their value is undermined if they come at the expense of sound self-knowledge (because he is told he's wonderful at everything), sound friendships (because friends are put off by his resulting bossiness and arrogance), and determination and perseverance (because he has never had to face and overcome setbacks). Parents can encourage the development of a boy's moral awareness by helping him to notice other people's helpful behavior and commenting favorably on their thoughtfulness, but if piling on praise leads to self-obsession and overconfidence, a boy's awareness of his impact on other people could be dulled. In order to decide whether our affirmative comments and actions are overall helpful, we should acknowledge the full range of possible desirable goals and the different categories and styles of positive feedback.
Here are some terms that help us to focus on the varied, deeper purposes of praise beyond the obvious ones: affirm, appreciate, approve, admire, attend, anticipate, achieve, acknowledge, be aware and alert, aspiration.
Each of these ten simple objectives is explored as a separate tip in this chapter.
It is useful to consider praise in terms of time zones. Although each encounter and incident is in the present, a key purpose of praise—and of support and encouragement—is to help our boys feel optimistic about their future, comfortable with the route they have traveled from the past, and content with the present. When we encourage them, our focus is on the future: We try to convince any boy in our care he will overcome any current difficulty to be successful hereafter. We therefore generate faith, hope, and confidence and give him heart. When we clearly enjoy his company and his achievements, we indicate our happiness and pleasure with who he is, in the present moment. When we endorse his actions, his view of the world, his approaches to learning, and his feelings, we are accepting those bits of him that have been fashioned by his past. If boys are comfortable about their past behavior and experiences, even if these were difficult, they are better able to look optimistically at the future. It is not helpful for parents or significant others to make a boy feel either ashamed of or guilty about his past or to dismiss it in an attempt to refocus and start again.


Affirm—to help him feel strong

Q: If parents don't praise you directly, how else might you know that they're pleased with you?
A: When they leave me alone and let me get on with things without nagging me.
—Alex, age 16
A: When they give me more responsibility, it shows they trust me. That gives me a buzz and is like praise.
—Mark, age 15
To affirm a child is to make a clear statement that confirms and accepts who he is. The word has its origins in a Latin word that means "strong." It therefore implies strength. When we affirm a child, we offer a firm statement of strong support, but it also gives children strength when they hear it.
To affirm is to make a neutral, judgment-free statement. Its essence is descriptive. The power and value of affirmation lie in its ability to encompass the past, present, and future—to endorse and encourage. We do not have to wait for any particular event or achievement to speak out. We can help our son to understand who he is at any time by describing what we see—his qualities and personality, his likes and dislikes, his particular talents—and then confirm how much we enjoy him as he is.
• Think of ways to describe him and how he thinks and does things that will make him feel confident and strong inside.• "I like your ideas and what you are trying to say. They'd be clearer and more powerful if you separated them. Try writing each idea down and thinking how each links to the rest."
—"I love the way your eyes crinkle at the edges when you laugh."• "Of course you will be upset that Carl is using the computer before you, but alphabetical order is what the class agreed on."
—"I've noticed how well you organized the ball game in the park, which makes me think you're responsible enough to go to the mall with your friends on the weekend."
• Ask him to help you with tasks either because he is good company or because he's good at that sort of thing.


Appreciate his achievements

For a young child, every day brings fresh challenges and fresh achievements. One day he can't do something, yet the next he can. Life is a growing experience in which more becomes manageable so competence can blossom. These achievements become the expression of being, and it is essential that they be fully appreciated.
One of the meanings of appreciate is "to be sensitive to." That is a significant definition. It suggests we should be sufficiently sensitive to see things on his level and in his terms: in relation to his challenges and difficulties, his limitations and capabilities, not our expectations.
Appreciation also includes the notion of value increasing, as in the value of houses or other forms of saving. Each child can be viewed as our most valuable asset. He will see that he goes up in your estimation each time you appreciate him and what he has managed to achieve. Of course, you love him, too, and he remains as important to you as ever, but every child really flies if he feels that those on whom he relies and whom he loves to the bottom of his being believe he has the potential to develop and impress.
• "Achievement" can be very widely interpreted: Any advance in reading level, sociability, confidence, math computation, height and reach, ball skills, being able to dress unaided, learning to swim, or packing bags for school or for a sleepover can be openly appreciated.• Many schools have reward systems that acknowledge achievement for each individual rather than what is exceptional for the group.
• Appreciation energizes. When children hear your appreciation they feel able to move forward. Those who receive little can get emotionally and developmentally stuck and become demoralized.• Appreciate a wide variety of skills and knowledge, not simply those related to academic learning, on which most lessons concentrate.


Approve of who he is

Approval is the green light to grow, to carry on in the same way because he is good and fine as he is. Boys need this not only from their mothers, but also from their fathers, if this is practical or possible, or, if not, from an alternative father figure. As soon as boys start to identify more closely with being male, usually around the age of eight, they benefit from having an adult male available not just to approve of them but also to act as a positive role model as they explore ideas of masculinity and what it might mean for them. Male friends, uncles or cousins, or a friendly neighbor may be able to step in when a father is absent. At the very least, mothers should be careful never to disparage men within a boy's earshot, and they can help by speaking favorably of men in general or particular whenever possible.
But gender is only one aspect of a boy's identity—one of the later spoonfuls of color added to his personality palette. He is already an individual, and he needs to feel approved of for all his strengths, weaknesses, fears, habits, and eccentricities.
• Hear his side of the story. Assume the best of him, not the worst.• Avoid stereotyping. Each boy is an individual, not a replica of anyone, even an older sibling.
• Let him tell you about his disappointments, and realize what they mean to him.• Acknowledge that each student's point of view is the result of his unique experiences over the years.


On Sale
Apr 28, 2009
Page Count
240 pages

Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer

About the Author

Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer writes extensively on parenting and child development. She is the author of eight books, including Raising Confident Boys, Raising Confident Girls, and Talking to Tweens.

Learn more about this author