Don't overdo it. When your toddler puts his pants on by himself for the first time, it's worth making a big deal about it. But gushing over everyday achievements ("You finished your carrots -- yay!") will cause your child to discount praise he's truly earned. It may also make him feel he constantly has to do things to impress you.
Be specific. Instead of saying, "Wow, that's a great drawing," say, "Look at that great sun you made, and you even included clouds!" This lets your child know you're really taking notice of her work and encourages her to do more, says Janice Fletcher, EdD, director of the child development lab at the University of Idaho in Moscow.
Emphasize the effort, not the outcome. When your child is learning a new activity, don't comment on how well she does it. Instead, compliment her enthusiasm and progress ("You worked really hard in soccer, and I noticed you're starting to dribble the ball better"). When 7-year-old Rachel Geissler started a dance class, she had trouble mastering the steps. "I told her I liked her bright smile, which showed how passionate she is about dancing," says her mother, Andrea, of Bel Air, Maryland. "And I said, 'You really give your all.' That helped her stick with it."
Focus on the feat. Young kids have a hard time distinguishing between who they are and what they do. So instead of commending your child ("You were good in the car"), praise the action ("You were very calm and quiet on the trip"). This helps toddlers and preschoolers understand the behavior that earned them a compliment.
Point out the positives. It's easy to fall into the pattern of pointing out your child's mistakes while overlooking his little successes, says Hartley-Brewer. But when you make an extra effort to praise your child's achievements and good behavior, you'll help reinforce them. When Ginny Speirs notices that her children, Ben, 5, and Siena, 8, are being kind to a younger child, she lets them know it. "Telling them that they should be proud of themselves inspires them to do the same thing again," says the mom from Montecito, California.
Don't brag. Overdoing praise in public ("Isn't Jimmy the best speller you've ever seen?" or "My
4-year-old already knows how to count to 20 and to read") isn't just annoying to other parents -- it also puts a lot of pressure on your child to perform. "This is counterproductive praising," says Edward Christophersen, PhD, clinical child psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. "It can embarrass your child, and it cancels out the learning benefit of praise."
Share his achievements with your spouse. While you shouldn't boast about your child in front of your friends, there's no need to hold back when you're at home. In fact, making your spouse aware of your child's achievement can be good for him, says Lawrence Balter, PhD, professor of applied psychology at New York University, in New York City. Just try not to say it in front of your other kids, so they don't feel slighted. "When my 5-year-old son, Jacques, does something noteworthy, I tell his mother about it in front of him," says Todd Nissen, of Washington, D.C. One day when Jacques was sniffling, Nissen handed Jacques a tissue and told his wife, "He blew his nose all by himself yesterday." Right on cue, Jacques said, "Yeah, watch me," and demonstrated his new skill.
Tell the truth. Even young kids can see right through false praise. Your best strategy is to be honest -- and diplomatic -- when commenting on your child's ability. "If she's learning to dive and does an awkward belly flop, don't say, 'What a beautiful dive,'" says Miller Shivers, PhD, clinical child psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. A better script: "I see you're working on your diving." By not defining the action as good or bad, you're being truthful -- while letting your child know she has your attention.
Use body language. Nonverbal cues are a great way to express your approval. "When my face lights up with a grin or I high-five my 4-year-old twins for cleaning their room, they know how I feel about their accomplishment," says Daphne Butler, of Nashville. A smile or a hug can also be less distracting than words. "If you say, 'You're reading so well,' your child will stop to look up at you," says Dr. Christophersen. "But if you give him a gentle rub on the back, he'll get the message that you're proud of him and keep reading."
Avoid sarcasm. Don't poison praise with snarky comments ("Who would have guessed you'd finish an entire meal without staining your clothes?" or "Finally, you learned to ride a bike without training wheels"). Children may not get your attempt at humor, and pointing out past failings is really a form of criticism. Simply celebrate the event ("How does it feel to eat neatly, like a big boy?" or "I'll bet you can't wait to show your friends that you can ride a bike"). "Kids just need to know what it is they're doing right," says Hartley-Brewer.