Praise is good for children, surely everyone knows that, but what is less well-known is that you need to apply praise properly or it will do more harm to your child’s development than good. How, you might wonder, can praise do that? Well, it seems that if you simply praise kids for everything, then they soon learn that it is worthless and they will not benefit from it. Worse, if you praise a child for something that comes easily to them, it can send a message to them that you think they’re not very talented. Similarly, if you praise a child for being smart, rather than trying hard, then you instill in them the idea that if they fail at something, then it’s because they’re not intelligent enough to do it and they’ll simply give up when they run into difficulties. Finally, and probably worst of all, if you constantly praise a child by comparing them to others, you’ll train them to constantly compare themselves to others, and instead of aiming to master a skill they’ll aim to do better than others. If this is the case, then they’ll lack the ability to inspire themselves to learn things or solve problems on their own.
So, how do you use praise in a positive way to help your child develop self-confidence, persistence and the ability to reach their full potential? Well, it’s really quite simple (or at least it is simple to say, it’s much harder to actually implement effectively!) Here, then, are seven ways to positively praise your child:
1. Praise should always be positive and unconditional:
It sounds surprising, but many people frequently make praise conditional rather than unconditional. Conditional praise is something that always makes cringe when I hear it, especially when it’s being aimed at a child, and it comes when a child is expecting to be praised, but instead receives something which while on the surface may seem like praise, but is immediately followed by a conditional statement that negates the praise itself. A prime example is when a child does well on a test at school, and when they get home, they’re told ‘Well done. Now think how well you could have done if you’d just studied a bit harder!’ Here, we have the moment of praise (the ‘Well done’ but it is immediately followed by a negative condition (the ‘ now think how well you could have done if …’ bit). Worse, some people will get into the habit of skipping the praise phrase altogether and going straight to the conditional statement! Many people seem to think that this type of comment will inspire a child to work harder next time, but it doesn’t. It simply undermines the work that they put in this time round (as they are not getting the true recognition for it that they deserve), and if this is the type of praise they get all the time, it can leave them feeling that there’s no point in trying because no matter how hard they try and no matter what they do, it will never be good enough. Other examples of conditional praise include phrases like ‘Well done, and next time I’m sure you’ll do even better’, ‘Thank you for doing that, it’s about time you finally did it’, or ‘Well done, but next time do it without me having to ask you to do it umpteen times’. Really, conditional praise can be summed up as pretty much any praise phrase that has a ‘but’ in it (either literally or inferred). They are phrases which I’m sure we’re all familiar with, and it’s easy enough to let them slip out unnoticed, but they really should be avoided at all costs if you wish to avoid the negative impacts associated with them.
2. Praise needs to be sincere:
Just using appropriate praise phrases (e.g. ‘Well Done!,’ ‘That’s Brilliant’ and so on) is not enough. Instead, you have to really mean what you are saying. This is because children, particularly older ones will quickly pick up on instances when you are just going through the motions, and they will learn not to trust any praise that you give them, which will damage them in the longer term. This means that you need to avoid routinely muttering things like ‘Very Good!’ without actually looking up to see what it is you’re praising your child for, and whether it is actually appropriate. This means that in order to praise effectively, you need to be giving your child your full attention at the time the praise is given, so that they know it is sincere. It also means that you should never use praise in a sarcastic way to try to make a point (e.g. ‘Oh well done, you FINALLY finished your home work!’
3. Praise needs to be specific:
One of the best ways to ensure that praise is sincere is to make sure that it is specific. This means avoiding the over-use of general praise phrases (e.g. ‘Good girl! or ‘Nicely done!’) that can start to come across as insincere if used all the time, and instead ensuring that you make it clear exactly what you are praising your child for (e.g. ‘Well done for finishing first in your race’).
4. Praise your child for characteristics which they feel they can improve on, and not innate abilities:
Exactly what you praise a child for can have a dramatic impact upon them. If you continually praise a child for traits that they think of as innate (‘wow, you’re so clever!’ ‘Aren’t you smart’, ‘oh you’re just so gifted at that!’ and so on), they will quickly learn to think that their abilities are fixed, and this can cause long-lasting damage to their ability to cope with situations where they feel out of their depth. This means that such children quickly learn to stick to what they know and rarely challenge themselves, for fear that they will prove themselves not to be as talented or intelligent as they’ve been told, and they will lack persistence when they encounter difficulties in life. Instead, it is much more effective to praise a child for characteristics they feel are under their control. This includes things like the amount of effort they put in, they way the approached a problem, or the method they used to work out a solution (e.g. ‘All your hard work really paid off!’, ‘That was a really good way to solve that problem’ or ‘That was a good choice of method to work out how to do that!). This encourages children to view putting in effort as worthy (rather than having innate traits), and they will learn to put in more effort, especially when they encounter difficult problems, rather than just giving up. This means they develop persistence, and persistence is a really important core life skill.
5. Not everything is praise-worthy:
It is important that praise is only used for something that is out-standing, and not for everything that a child does. If you praise a child too often, then they’ll learn not to believe it. Similarly, if you praise a child for something they like doing, or that they’re already good at, this can put them off doing it again. Why? Because they associate activities that they get praise for as being difficult or unpleasant (or why else would they need praise for doing it?), and, in their heads, it turns activities they previously enjoyed into chores. Similarly, if you always praise a child, then they will grow to expect praise every time and if you stop praising them, they will interpret it as a signal that they are no longer doing well and this can result in them losing interest in an activity, or losing self-belief in their abilities. The bottom line here is that praise is most effective when praise is unexpected and spontaneous rather than routine.
6. Praise should be child-specific:
When you are praising a child, you need to ensure that the praise is specific for their level of development, their individual abilities, and their likes and interests. If you make your praise too general, then they will interpret it as being insincere and as an indication that you don’t really understand them. You also need to ensure that your praise is directed solely at the child and their achievements, and is not comparative. Specifically, you need to ensure that your praise does not compare your child’s behaviour or achievements to those of others (particularly their siblings). There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is demeaning to the other child (‘You’re so much better behaved that your brother!’ may seem like a good complement, but now imagine you are the brother and you over hear this – it’s not exactly going to boost your self-confidence is it?) The second reason is that it encourages the child to believe that what is important isn’t the mastery of a specific task, but simply to do better than others. This means that their self-worth becomes attached not to their own abilities, but to how they compare to those around them, and this is not healthy or beneficial to their long-term happiness. This is a common problem with children who have grown used to being brightest or most talented child in their local school. They then graduate and move onto college where they find themselves surrounded by the brightest children from many other schools around the country, or indeed the world, and they find themselves strikingly average in this new environment. Those who have grown up receiving praise based on how their natural abilities compare to those around them (e.g. ‘Well done, you’re the brightest child in your class!’), will quickly fall apart when faced with this new and challenging environment, while those who have been praised for their ability to master particular tasks or skills will thrive because they have developed the self-motivation to cope with the sudden change in their status.
7. Praise should be descriptive rather than abstract:
In order to be able to build on their natural abilities, children need to know exactly what they are being praised for so that they can repeat it again in the future. If you frequently use generic praise phrases (e.g. ‘Good job!’, ‘Well done!’, ‘Good for you’ and so on), your child will have difficulty in decoding exactly what they are being praised for, and this can cause them to mis-interpret the behaviour you are trying to encourage in them. For example, if I child brings you a short story they have written, and you simply tell them they’ve done a good job, they will be unclear as to whether you’re referring to the words they used, their use of grammar, their penmanship or just the number of words they’ve written. If instead, you use descriptive praise, they will have a much better understanding of what they did well. So, for example, it would be better to say ‘This is a great story, I really like the way that you made this character come to life by describing what they were wearing!’ as this is a clear indication of what you feel they have done well. However, you do have to be careful here, and you need to make sure that your praise is sincere, so avoid sweeping statements like ‘This is the best character description I’ve ever read!’. This is because this puts an unbearable amount of pressure on the child to repeat their success in their next piece of writing, and it can actually result in them feeling so inadequate that they simply give up.
These, then, are my seven ways to effectively praise your child in a way that will help build their self-confidence, their persistence and their ability to master specific tasks that they set their mind to. These are really important core life skills and they are ones you should encourage at all costs. They are also skills that you need to ensure that you do not inadvertently damage by using praise in a negative rather than a positive way, so always think twice before using praise to ensure that this is never the case.
Links To More Information About How To Praise A Child Effectively
There is a lot of information out there about how best to effectively use praise to encourage children and build their self-esteem. Of those available, I would particularly recommend the following:
- The Effects of Praise – What Scientific Studies Reveal About the Right Way to Praise Kids (Parenting Science).
- Praise and Intelligence – Why Telling Kids they are Smart Makes them Act Dumb (Parenting Science).
- “Good job!” Is Praising Young Children a Good Idea? (The Hanan Center).
About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.