Be More Specific Than You're Terrific
By Jane Pratte

Children do wonderful and delightful things. They perform acts of bravery, kindness, honesty, and respectfulness. Yet these actions are often rewarded with generic "at-a-boys," "You’re great," "Wow, you did it!" or "You’re terrific." Acts of goodness deserve more than a casual pat on the back and should receive more attention than negative behaviors.

The display of good character presents an opportunity to recognize positive behaviors with specific language, to affirm children’s character development, and to praise children for showing their character. The concept of correlating specific actions with specific lessons defines an approach you can implement to develop good character in children using recognition, affirmation, and praise. This is an approach where the identification of goodness goes beyond "You’re terrific."

How often do you notice a child extending a hand to a playmate? Maybe you have seen a child picking up another’s jacket and placing it on a chair. Has a child come to you with money he or she has found? Does a child voluntarily wash his or her hands after using the toilet? Perhaps a child has brought you a flower or gift.

These are examples of caring, respect for others, honesty, self-respect, and kindness. You have probably seen these situations, patted a little one on the shoulder and said, "Gee, that’s great" or "You are so sweet." But, how often do you stop and define an action specifically? Have you said, "That was a very respectful thing to do!" or "You acted very honestly when you returned the money that was not yours"? When you define an action, recognition becomes more than a compliment, it becomes an effective tool for encouragement and behavior reinforcement.

All children need and want approval and acceptance. When teachers and parents recognize positive character traits in the behaviors of young children, they can affirm the goodness of the behaviors in such a way that will cause the children to internalize these positive character traits. Affirmation places importance on good behavior and shows children the types of behaviors that are recognized in the classroom or home. When a young person has been affirmed for a specific behavior or action, he or she is motivated and inspired to repeat the positive behavior.

How often do we see or hear of children who performed acts of courage in the community? Once a courageous event happens to a person, that event becomes part of his or her reputation. We have the opportunity to do more than say, "That’s good." We have the opportunity to say, "That is good because you acted bravely." The defining of the affirmation teaches children that this character trait resides within them, and that is why they are recognized.

Can your affirmation of an act of respect build self-esteem and respect of others? Yes! Can you tell a child that coming to class prepared for the day’s work is a sign of responsibility? Yes! Can you affirm a child for an act of courtesy when a little one opens the door for others? Yes! It doesn’t take a lot of time to clarify why an action was deemed important if it is truly worthy of affirmation.

What child does not like and need praise? What child (or adult for that matter) doesn’t want to be recognized and complimented for his or her accomplishments? Praise reinforces a job well done, inspires repeat behavior, confirms inherent or learned goodness, and helps build character.

Children seem to demand attention when they do something bad. Attention-getting is a time waster that confirms you can be diverted from your focus. Praise, on the other hand, is a time-worthy venture; behaviors are repeated when attention is paid. If attention in the form of praise is shared among teachers, parents, and children then positive behaviors are likely to be repeated not only by the receiver of praise, but also by those who shared in the happiness that resulted.

Praise comes in many forms—kind words, loving expressions, handshakes, and pats on the back. These are good things. But in this fast-paced society, character development will be most influenced by praise which is specific and defined so that even the youngest child knows that a particular behavior resulted in a positive response and positive attention. It is no longer enough to say, "You are special."

Children who respect themselves and others, who have empathy for their fellow people, who are good citizens and environmental stewards, who are trustworthy and responsible, who have positive outlooks and determination are the rewards of your efforts. These children have learned the lessons of character education and are the future citizens of a society built on integrity.

To implement recognition, affirmation, and praise in your classroom or home, develop a list of character traits that you will recognize in children. Show this list to teachers, parents, and children. Recognize these qualities through daily interaction. Affirm positive character development with specific action words that identify the behavior and highlight the action. And, finally heap lots of praise on the children. Tell children what makes them special. Most importantly, "Be more specific than you’re terrific."

Jane Pratte is owner of Character Encouragement Products, Inc., a company that designs, develops, markets, and distributes products focused on family values and character education teaching materials. For more information, please call 205-681-5580 or e-mail