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The 4 to 1 Principle of Praise: Prompting Positive Behavior

September 18th, 2015     By Kerry Stewart, Director of Family Home Program

Connecting with Kids, Parent-Child Relationships, Parenting Skills

As parents, we’re conditioned to notice when something is out of order with our kids – that’s nature working. So when they’re at the kitchen table doing their homework or in the bathroom brushing their teeth before bed, everything is normal and we go about our regular business. Unfortunately this means that many of us have a tendency to interact with our kids more often when they’re being bad than when they’re being good. After all, bad gets noticed, so bad gets attention.

The trouble with this is, when you criticize your child when he is being bad and ignore him when he’s being good, he will eventually begin to tune you out because, in his mind, all he hears is the same thing over and over. Not only that, he can also begin to internalize your criticisms and begin to believe that he is somehow inherently “bad,” which then feeds his negative behaviors.

Over the years, the parenting experts at Boys Town have developed an approach to behavior correction that addresses this problem. It’s the 4 to 1 Principle of Praise, and, very simply, it means that you should praise your child four times to every one criticism. There are three primary reasons for this:

1. It creates a foundation for how you want your child to behave.
2. It prevents a child from hearing only what they do wrong.
3. It makes a child feel good about behaving in a positive manner.

The thing is, in order to implement this approach, we as parents need to pay more attention to our kids, and that requires a little extra work on our part. The phrase we use at Boys Town is to “catch a child being good.”

So, to use the above examples, when your kid is at the kitchen table doing his homework, maybe you can bring him a glass of milk and a cookie and say, “I appreciate you getting down to work on your school project. I’m sure it’ll turn out really well.” Or when your kid brushes his teeth without prompting, you can say, “I see you brushed your teeth without having to be asked. That was really grown-up of you.” After a while, you’ll build up a store of praise that will help cushion the blow when you need to issue a negative consequence for a bad behavior.

You can even create a system of small rewards for good behaviors. Time-based ones work really well. You can grant your child an extra half hour of TV watching on a particular night or maybe an extra 15 minutes of video games. For younger kids, you can give them a “time-in” where they get to do anything they want (within reason) for a specific time. Or maybe they get a backrub from Mom or Dad before bed. Be creative, and you’ll make it fun.

Here’s another thing: when it inevitably does come time to talk to your child about a negative behavior, you should always try to start out with some praise. For instance, if your son is fighting with his younger brother over a video game, you could say, “I appreciate you including your brother in your game. That was very generous of you. But you should really try to be more patient with him, because it’s going to take more time for him to learn it as well as you.”

With a little practice, the 4 to 1 Principle of Praise really does go a long way to correcting negative behaviors in children while helping to build up their self-esteem and confidence. Try it and see. At the end of the day, the only thing you have to lose is your kids’ negative behavior.

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