As parents, it’s natural to take a “sigh of relief” as we move past the holiday season.

When my own children were small, I remember some of the family events were stress-inducing. We were taking the kids out of their normal routines — and sometimes even out of their own bed — in order to go visit family and friends.

On top of these changes, we were adding new decorations to their home and promising new toys. I was always worried about how the kids would handle such situations — living in fear that they may do or say something that would somehow lead my family to assume we were poor parents. I look back at such events and am amazed that, despite all my fears of what could go wrong, my kids really did pretty well.

It’s only natural for us to worry about what can go wrong. After all, we want to prevent things from going badly. I’ve learned a great deal from my experiences, and my potential grandchildren will likely benefit from it more than my own children. The way to “prevent” things from going badly is to praise kids for doing things correctly. In hindsight, I was saying “no, don’t do that” far too often, when I should have been saying “Well done. You handled that really well.”

As we head into a new year, a great parenting resolution is to focus more on what our kids are doing correctly rather than what they are doing wrong. I encourage you to think of giving praise as a three-part process.

1. The first step is to describe what you seeing your child doing correctly. Be explicit in describing what you see. “I really like seeing you playing nicely with your cousin. You are taking turns and using nice words with one another” is much more clear to a child then a general “Nice job.”

2. State the natural consequences are for such behavior so your kids can see how this particular behavior may serve him or her well in other settings. “When you play so well with other kids, you are more likely to have more fun and more friends who will want to play with you.”

3. After providing the description and stating the benefits of the behavior to the child, then add your praise. At this point, the praise can be simple. A short “good job” or “nicely done” is a simple way to end.

This type of praise is the best tool parents have to prevent problem behaviors down the road. A good dose of prevention goes a long way to making things go well in unusual situations like a holiday gathering.

As busy people, we often think we don’t have the time or energy to praise our kids this way. In truth, this whole conversation only takes 15 to 20 seconds. At first, it may take a little longer while you think it through in your mind, but it quickly becomes natural. Like any new habit, you must practice it. Both you and your kids will quickly see the benefits!

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Scott Butler has been a professional educator for 30 years. He has worked as a classroom teacher, school counselor and school administrator. Additionally, Scott is a licensed mental health practitioner. He is currently the director of the Boys Town Day School. He is father to four kids ranging from 14 to 22. Outside of work, he is an avid gardener and quilter.

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