Praising a child can be an effective way to motivate good behaviour and increase a child’s self-worth and self-concept. However, not all praise is created equal. Certain kinds of praise, although well-intentioned, can have the opposite effect of what you intend. In this article, we’ll look at common mistakes parent’s make and how we can improve upon them.
HOW NOT TO PRAISE
DO NOT OVERPRAISE
Many parent’s praise their children for everything they do. Calling them a ‘genius’ for solving a simple problem or an ‘angel’ for sitting quietly for a minute. You might be trying to reinforce good behaviour, hoping that calling your child an angel for the meagerest thing will make them more angelic, but it is not healthy. It is insincere, and your child knows it (or they will learn soon enough). If you child is conditioned to be praised for everything they do, praise becomes an external reward which decreases motivation to perform well and it also raises the potential for narcissism.
Let’s face it, some activities do not deserve praise. Imagine your boss said “well done, you’re amazing” just for closing the door – you would feel patronised. Overpraise also means you’re likely to to send mixed messages. Your child may wonder, “why am I an angel now when ten minutes ago, I was screaming at you?” It doesn’t make sense.
Overpraising probably won’t work as intended. However, supposing it does in some cases (e.g., reinforces behaviour), it places undue pressure on a child. Having to live up to the idea of being the ‘smartest’ is stressful. Always having to be the ‘perfect angel’ is no fun, and the child may forgo experimenting new things for fear of being “bad.” They may repress feelings (to live up to the image of being good), which will inevitably lead to more problems. Finally, a child who performs well simply to receive praise from a parent may well become an approval seeker in general. This is no way to live, as the child will attach their self worth to what others think. A child should be motivated to do something for its intrinsic value.
DO NOT CONSTANTLY PRAISE
This kind of praise has a good chance of becoming meaningless. A child will stop taking the words “good job” seriously when they’ve heard it ten times in as many minutes, and it can be belittling.
This all said, we should still praise children. Children who don’t hear praise may think you’re not interested in them or you don’t care, and could potentially develop low self-esteem or depression. What they need is the right kind of praise. Let’s explore what that looks like:
GOOD WAYS TO PRAISE
PRAISE EFFORT AND PROCESS NOT THE OUTCOME OR ABILITY
When children are praised for their effort, they associate their success with their effort. Seems straight forward enough, but how many times have you heard someone praise a student for being so clever for receiving high marks. Rather, we should praise the effort it took to achieve an A. “You worked really hard to get that A” is far more effective than “You got an A, you’re our special genius.”
Similar to praising effort, we should appreciate the process. We can do this by pointing out that they had a novel way of approaching a problem, or that they concentrated well.
Encouraging a child’s effort and process means they will focus more on developing and practicing skills, as opposed to being the best. When they fail at something, they are more likely to attribute their failure to not working hard enough as opposed to thinking, “I am stupid” or “I am useless.” Conversely, when we overpraise natural ability, e.g., “You’re so smart,” children are less resilient to failure. If they don’t perform well, they are more likely to give up. This is because they attributed their recent success to being naturally clever rather than any effort they may have put in.
PRAISE WHAT YOU OBSERVE
If you see your child doing something you like, simply describe what you have observed, rather than state it in the form of an overpraise. For example, if your child puts their dirty dish in the sink, say, “you put the dish in the sink, thank you.” Alternatively, if they’re drawing a picture, you could say “you’re having a good go at that drawing.” It helps to be specific. If they kick a ball well, don’t say “You’re awesome” instead say, “You’ve really learned how to kick that ball.” Being specific means what you’re saying is more likely to be sincere.
DON’T PRAISE BY COMPARING
Don’t try to motivate your child by saying they’re better than someone else. Again, this makes them focus on the outcome ‘being better’ rather than the effort or process of achieving.
When praising a child, it’s always good to make eye contact and use a warm tone. If you can, get down to their height as well. Of course, this is not always possible, sometimes it’s hard enough to get a child to listen to a single sentence, even if it is praise.
All this should be approached with common sense. It would be near impossible for parents to praise in precisely the right way and quantity all the time. A mom overwhelmed with affection for her child, may well hug them and say, “I’m so proud of you.” This does not mean their child is forever going to seek external validation. What is important is that you have a sense of balance. Avoid the constant barrage of praise and glorification of normal behaviour. Show interest in and appreciation of your child and remark positively on their commendable achievements, focusing on their input rather than an outcome.