Updated: Nov 1, 2019
Inside: How praise can backfire in potty training and what kind of praise works best in potty training toddlers.
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As a follow-the-rules kid who worked hard for my grades (nerding out with self-made flashcards and highlighted outlines back in high school), the most satisfying part of receiving an A was not seeing the letter grade.
It was hearing what my parents would say.
Spouses seek praise from one another. Employees look to hear they did a job well done. Even your dog needs a praiseworthy pat on the head.
And yes, our kids seek out praise, too.
But praise comes in all shapes and sizes, and praise is tricky in how it’s sometimes received. It can work in reverse and add more pressure on your child. And that buildup of pressure can derail potty training, so it's worth considering.
How are you praising your child to use the potty?
The type of praise or encouragement you use can be received differently than you'd expect. Language does matter.
So consider this.
Are you praising your child or your child's behavior?
If you praise your child with, "Good girl, you got pee in the potty!" then what happens when your child has an accident?
That can leave your child thinking they're a "bad girl" because they didn't make it to the potty in time.
If your praise is directed at your child, two things can happen.
Related: Looking for scripts on how to talk to your child when you feel overwhelmed with your toddler's behavior? I share my picks of parenting books here. I believe in connecting with your inner instincts as a mama, but I also like some tools in my parenting toolbox for sorting through what language to use in tough situations.. and how to handle child behavior at different stages of life. These are the books I've found to be the most helpful as a parent.
1. Your child can feel more shame when they don't get it right.
And remember, no child gets it right without any accidents when they're learning this huge new skill. So many issues can come up with potty training, as well, but what never changes is your child is still the same awesome child on the inside. Also, when a child during potty training feels shame that they "aren't getting it", that's when the inner f*** it, as we term in Oh Crap Potty Training, is more likely to show up.
A well-intentioned note of praise can feel like a backhanded judgment.
You’re such a big girl now that you’re using the potty.
Does that mean if she has an accident, then she’s not a big girl? Then she’s acting like a baby?
Or that she’s not deserving of the praise?
2. Your child can start using the potty to get that golden praise from you, seeking more validation that they are good.
When you over-praise, that can snowball into your child..
wanting to be good at everything
wanting to be good all the time
wanting that attention and praise from you.
It also naturally adds more pressure to the process. And that's where power battles can creep in.
What you want is to strip emotion completely out of potty training and make it a normal thing we all do.
Not some high marker that they must achieve or they no longer feel good.
If you throw around praise of the general Good Job variety, that can also backfire.
From reading this book on parenting toddlers, I've thought more carefully about the type of verbal encouragement I use with my kids in all parts of life. It's helped so much in my kids feeling heard. Their good behavior feeling validated.
There are different reactions you see depending on the types of praise...
the general throwaway "Good job!" praise that's said so often it loses its impact
praise through describing your child's behavior — simply stating what you're observing can encourage your toddler behavior because you're saying specifically what your child is doing right.
In my favorite book on the ways language can affect how your child responds to you, How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, there's an entire chapter on tools for praise. I think the subheading says it all..
"Ways to praise that will help, not hinder"
There's also a noticeable difference in how the child receives those words of praise. Here's why.
1. Praise vs. Encouragement with Kids
In Montessori teaching, which is a core part of my personal parenting philosophy, there's a differentiation between praise and encouragement.
Praise is seen as a more temporary means of motivating good behavior.
It also leaves your child feeling like they need to constantly live up to an expectation (pressure) so that they'll hear that she's a good girl and you're proud of her.
But with encouragement, you empower your child.
It's not about conditions or judgement — nope it's simply about describing your child's behavior in the moment. In fact, when you encourage your child, it makes them more likely to judge their own behavior and motivate themselves.
You did your best and you didn't give up.
It helps your child take pride in their own accomplishment, rather than doing it to receive praise from you. Here's what encouragement sounds like:
You must be proud of yourself.
Remember that saying about how what we say to our kids becomes their inner voice? These are some powerful words of encouragement for your child's inner voice to adopt.
Yes, I'm proud of myself! I made it to the potty and peed!
Related: We all make mistakes. Grownups. Potty training toddlers. If your child feels like they can't make a mistake, you can see a mess with potty training. Sometimes the child will hold their pee for fear of messing it up. Or there's just a lot of tension in the air.
Make it clear that we ALL make mistakes. And that's actually how we learn, right? I love this book Beautiful Oops to send that message to young kids. It's interactive with its design, which is always a winner with toddlers.
2. Praise in More Descriptive Terms
Have you read the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk? There's a reason it's a bestseller (highly recommend), and what clicked for me when I read it was how it also lines up with this important point about how you praise you child.
It all comes back to being descriptive rather than judgmental.
When you reflect back what your child has done, that helps your child feel pride that comes from herself. Here's an example in the potty training realm:
You pushed down your pants all by yourself and got on the potty.
(rather than the simple)
Remember that your child can read you very well.
It's through your tone of being pleased that they'll automatically know you're happy with their behavior (a pee success! poop in the potty!).
Really your kiddo is going to know you're happy no matter what.
They can see it in your face. They can hear it in your tone. Parents are really easy to read on that front! So you don't need to overdo praise with the kind of cheerleading that works against building that inner sense of pride that will motivate your child to do it..
because she KNOWS she can.
Illustrations: Citrus and Mint