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Recognition: motivate your child without praise

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Recognition: motivate your child without praise

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Following on from our article praise: a problematic behaviour management strategy, this article is going to help you understand what praise is actually trying to do; that is, to motivate and meet your child’s basic human need for recognition; and give you effective ways to do this. Offering your child recognition is an effective motivator. What’s more, recognition supports your child’s long term self motivation, rather than undermining it!

What is recognition?

Recognition is knowing, of yourself, and being shown by others that you have a place in your community. It involves being seen as competent, appreciated, respected, and capable of developing by those within your social group. These things are crucial to our survival as a social species. We need them, and driving all motivation are our attempts to meet our own human needs.

Individuality and neurodivergences

The good news about recognition is that there are many ways to meet this need. So you can tailor it to your individual child. Personalities play an important role here as does individual neurology. Neurodivergent people (autistic people, and those with ADHD, PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance), etc.,) often react very differently from people who have more typical neurology; especially in regard to motivation. Largely because their needs, though under the same headings as neurotypical people, tend to be more extreme in some areas. This differs from person to person.

Neurodivergence results in a less balanced profile of needs and skills.​ For example, a child with PDA has a pervasive need for personal freedom and self-determination (autonomy). This means trying to externally motivate them will simply cause extreme anxiety. However, their needs categories are no different from anyone else’s and PDA children still fundamentally need recognition. Sometimes they need it in extreme quantity. By understanding this, you can look at the suggestions below and find ways of recognising each individual to effectively meet their needs.

Effective recognition could include:

1. A mutual celebration

high five mutual celebration motivation recognition praise

In situations where you are clearly celebrating a win with your child, an enthusiastic exclamation like “wow” or “that was awesome” or a gesture such as a fist bump or a grin, can be really effective recognition. Be cautious to ensure your child is happy with whatever just happened though as misplaced excitement when your child is actually disappointed can lead to difficult feelings to manage, for both of you.

2. Unconditional commentary

This approach is something we sometimes describe as the Sports-caster approach. It can feel kind of silly at first but literally saying what you see, without any positive or negative angle, is a fantastic form of recognising what our children are doing. This is a good example of why I no longer say “effective praise” because we are not trying to “praise” here. It is simple recognition, and it does motivate.

“I can see you’ve built a train track with a bridge”
“You are giving all your dollies cake for their tea”
“That is a blue brick”

3. Catching them doing something right

It often goes that when we are busy living and parenting, we only notice and have time for the things we need to correct. This is normal. We are doing a million things with our protection zone on alert for dangers and when our child does something that sets off the alarm, we engage. The problem with doing this all the time is that our relationship can start to feel negative, and we only really “praise” or recognise our children when they ask us too. “Hey come and look at what I have done” and then we have to force the positive reaction.

From now on, every time you remember, try catching them doing something right, something you are proud of. You don’t have to make a big deal about it, just recognise it, with a gesture, a smile, even the act of you noticing might be enough. Or things like “hey I have never seen you do that before” or “you are working so hard”.

4. Focusing on the process

We want our children to want to keep learning, trying and improving themselves and their skills. To encourage and motivate children to do this is actually easy because as humans we have a natural need for novelty. We want to explore and master new things. The problem is we get in our own way when we focus on the outcome. This is how perfectionists are made (that isn’t a good thing) and how self-esteem is broken. Commenting on their problem solving, their determination, their understanding of when to take a rest and try again later, are all really great things to focus on rather than perfection, achievement, results.

If you want to know more about this, you can research the Growth Mindset or google Carol Dweck.

5. Showing interest

parent showing interest in child's activity recognition

One of the ways that humans feel like they are being recognised is when people are genuinely interested in what they are doing, or have done. The best possible way to show your interest is to simply ask your child all about it, whatever it is.

When your toddler comes home with a blue splodge painting, instead of faking an “oh that is amazing” whilst thinking about what you are going to feed them, try “oh you chose a lovely blue colour, tell me all about it” or “what did you use to paint that with?” Or “who did you paint with today?”. They will be over the moon to tell you all about what they did.

You can do this with behaviour too. “Hmm, why did you choose to back off that last tree?” When you see them effectively managing their own risk. This is recognition of their process, and can lead to a great conversation.

6. Being grateful when applicable

say thank you, not good job recognition is motivation

Imagine for a minute that your friend popped over for a cuppa, and during your chat you spilled a little of your drink:

You: Jo can you pass me one of those tissues”
Jo: hands you a tissue
You: “Good girl”

It doesn’t sound quite right does it?
Quite often when we use generic praise phrases we actually mean “thank you”, even if that means thank you for listening to what I just said. If that is what you mean, say it. This is really about appropriately modelling and recognising other people’s contributions. You can also recognise other types of social contributions to encourage positive social behaviours, such as helping.

“You noticed that your sister couldn’t reach her blanket [unconditional commentary], and you got it for her even though it meant you had to stop your game [effort/process]. Thank you so much for helping her [social recognition]”.

7. Recognise the difficult stuff

Regardless of whether a child has done something worthy of positive recognition, praise, reward or accolade, they need you to recognise them as they are in that moment. If they feel like they failed, they feel angry, annoyed, or scared they need you to recognise that difficult feeling and accept it. They need your recognition, support, encouragement and love. Rejecting, dismissing, minimising or wishing away difficult feelings doesn’t ultimately lead to resilience, which is the only thing that brings success.

​8. Your general approach matters

Lastly, whenever you are recognising your child remember to keep it:


Try to leave any negative commentary on anyone or anything else out of the recognition. Showing your negativity to another outcome, could make them afraid to fail in the future.


Only use recognition when you mean it. Children are lie detectors most of the time and they will spot a fake a mile off. Not believing you can lead to serious future issues for them and for your relationship.


Try to avoid adding our love and feelings into recognition where this could feel as if our positive regard for the child is conditional on their behaviour. Our love for them is absolute and unconditional. However, talking about feelings when they are directly involved in the behaviour is great. For instance, if a child does something to make you feel better, you might say “it makes me feel happy when you cuddle me when I am sad”. But saying “I love you when you put your shoes on” is not ok.


Try to leave other people’s achievements, efforts and characteristics out of the recognition, and recognise them as a unique human.


Make sure they know what they are being recognised for doing or saying. “Thank you for being quiet when I was on the phone. That was very considerate”, rather than a generic “good boy”. Even changing “well done” to “well done for picking up your toys” is a good start.


Recognise their progress, their competence, their mastery of a task and their independence in a way that makes them feel powerful enough in themselves to do it again, to keep trying for new goals and to be safe in your support. They won’t get things right every time and that’s ok.

Get support

If you need more support in managing your child’s behaviour, please find a local CalmFamily consultant who offers workshops, courses and individual sessions.If you love what we do and want to change people’s lives, starting with yours, check out our training. You will get to spend a few days with me in training like nothing you have attended before.

Find out more

You can find out more about psychology, motivation, discipline and what really underlies our behaviour by visiting our knowledge hub.

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Being a parent, Child discipline, Motivating the future, Psychology, Toddler behaviour, Toddler discipline
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