"Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater." So goes the saying, and when applied to parenting it seems more relevant than ever. The question of whether or not parents should praise their children for "good" behavior is an issue to which that saying certainly applies.
The "bathwater" aspect of such praise is its tendency to undermine unconditional love. When praise is only given under certain conditions, it makes the child feel more loved when they behave according to the parents' standards, and less loved (or even "bad") when they behave differently. The brilliant work of Alfie Kohn makes this and other negative aspects of praise as plain as day.
The "baby" aspect of praise is appreciation, which is a powerful mode of thought that inspires and uplifts both the appreciatee and the appreciator. The root of the word appreciate is the same as the root of praise, meaning to prize, cherish, honor, or value. And what child would not benefit from being prized, cherished, honored, and valued?
But many well-meaning parents, for fear of harming their parent-child relationships with the bathwater aspects of praise, throw out the baby of appreciation and lose a great opportunity to uplift and be uplifted. The pretzel logic of that fear goes like this: "I don't want my child to think my appreciation is conditional, so I won't appreciate him/her under any conditions."
A better alternative is to practice the art of unconditional appreciation. In other words, make a deliberate effort to look for ways to appreciate your child no matter how s/he is behaving.
I don't mean to suggest you should express appreciation for behavior that you don't like: "Wow! You poured paint all over the brand new carpet! Good job!" But I am suggesting that you will always find something that you can sincerely appreciate if you are looking for it.
For example, you might find that you appreciate your child's passion for experimentation, even if you're mad as hell about the condition of the carpet. (Notice I said mad about the carpet, not at the child. Also, it is entirely possible for you to experience the painted carpet situation 100% joyfully, but I digress...)
If you contrive appreciation because you think you "should" -- even though you are feeling unappreciative -- it does no good for either one of you. Your appreciation will be more sincere and authentic if you do it for selfish reasons: because YOU feel better when you are appreciative than when you focus on what you don't appreciate. Let appreciation's positive effects on your child be a fringe benefit -- the icing on the cake.
When you find appreciative thoughts hard to come by, just appreciate anything you can, even if it's unrelated to your child. You may find relief in thoughts that begin with "At least..." For example, "At least the can of paint that got dumped on the carpet is the one I was going to get rid of anyway," or "At least the color of the stain will match the curtains."
Lastly, remember that the power of appreciation is not so much in its verbal expression but mostly in the positive "vibe" you emanate when you are in an appreciative state. Loving words may trigger good-feeling thoughts in your child's mind, but your good vibrations will be directly felt. So don't worry if you can't think of anything to say or do that is overtly appreciative. Just appreciate.
Children who are used to being appreciated most of the time don't "need" praise, and neither will they be particularly vulnerable to its ill effects. Likewise, children who are used to feeling loved don't need to be told they are loved, but when you form a habit of being appreciative, it's hard not to say "I love you" at every opportunity.