McNerney: Praising with Purpose

By Neil McNerney

In my book “Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!” I discuss the idea that there are three ways that we can lead our children. Most, if not all, of the ways we lead as parents can be categorized in one of these roles: The Supporter, The Consultant, and The Boss. I have been doing quite a bit of thinking about the role of The Supporter recently and thought I would share some of my ideas.

The Supporter is the parent that supports through “supportive” statements. The supporter is there to praise when things go well and to offer condolences and a shoulder to cry on when things go poorly. It is the easiest role for most of us since it can come so naturally. 

But just because it is the easiest role when compared to The Consultant and The Boss, it does not mean that it always comes naturally. There are many ways we can end up messing it up. One of the ways of undermining praise is by providing what I call “reverse praise.” Reverse praise usually starts out fine, but then we add a kicker to the end that changes the message entirely.

Hit and Run Praise

This is one of those simple techniques that, if used well, can be enormously powerful. Hit and Run Praise means pretty much just that. You praise your child and then get out of there before it gets screwed up. As parents, it can be hard to stop ourselves from giving advice, tweaking things a bit, and fine-tuning. But sometimes those extras are the very things that ruin the situation.

Example: You daughter has been struggling with a certain subject, getting Cs and Ds on quizzes. Today, she tells you she got a B. She’s excited. So are you.

You say, “Great job. I’m really impressed.” So far, so good, right? But you know what comes next. You add, “Now why couldn’t you have gotten Bs on the other ones?” Or “So let’s figure out how you can get an A next time.” Or “I hope you can keep this up for the next quiz.” Or “I told you that if you studied harder you would get a better grade.”

The problem with every one of these statements is that they tend to deflate the happiness of the moment and puts her on the defensive. Although these statements have merit, it is much better for our kids to think these thoughts on their own. The minute we say these thoughts, the chances of our kids saying them decreases to almost zero.

Let’s use an example from the working world. After a great presentation, your boss says, “Great job. Now why can’t you present that well every time?” or “Let’s look at what you can do to make it better next time.” Do you feel the wind being sucked right out of your sails? Instead, think about how it would it feel if your boss just said, “Great job.”

Observing and Summing Up

I love how the book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen” deals with the issue of observation. By observing, we are describing what we see, and then, if appropriate, summing it up in a word. 

For instance: Your child has completed her work, reviewed tomorrow’s work, and has organized her school area.

“I see you’ve got all your homework done, you’ve reviewed tomorrow’s work, and you have your school space organized. That what I call being prepared.”

The Supporter’s main tool is using praise effectively. You are trying to show the good progress your child is making and giving her a chance to evaluate herself. You are connecting with her and sharing in her progress without taking credit. You are setting your own ego, and your worries, aside and letting your child recognize and savor her accomplishments. The better we become at being the Supporter, the more likely our kids will stand on their own.

Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of “Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!” and “The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s”. He can be reached at

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