In a prior post I described how to match praise to the developmental task of the child, and in this post I take that idea a bit farther, describing how praise is a moving target, gradually shifting to ever more abstract things, like that fuzzy but critical concept, "character."
Very small children need to be praised for very concrete behaviors (sharing, being gentle, using an indoor voice), because those are the things they need to learn. But as children get older it is important to shift from praising the concrete to the abstract.
For example, when you notice your five year-old giving another child a pencil from his bag, it is good to praise that behavior as "sharing," but what about a ten year-old? By that age the idea of sharing is pretty solidly grasped, and clearly connected to the act of giving another your own pencil. As a parent you can point out that the sharing you see him doing represents something larger, like being "thoughtful," "caring" or "generous."
The trend in giving praise to your child is not just to move from praising the concrete to the abstract, but to help kids to identify what we might normally call "values" or "character" in their own day-to-day behavior.
Doing this helps kids to identify the values you have. If you praise generosity every time you see it, she will know that it matters to you, and what it looks like in action. Children rarely remember what you tell them, but they do remember how you react to their behavior. So praising valued behavior is far more effective than lecturing a child about values.
In a given day a child does hundreds of things. By pointing out which behaviors represent character strengths, and what they are called, you are helping kids lead themselves through their own example. Soon, the child does not just label the behavior as generous, he begins to think of himself as generous, and that sets him up for further generous behavior. In this way that elusive quality that we call "character" can be gradually nurtured and developed.
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