Written by: Cally Worden
For years now, parenting experts in the West have been encouraging us to offer praise to our kids in an effort to help build their self-esteem, confidence and motivation. This approach differs wildly from that in places like China, where praise is rarely dished out for fear that it will create arrogant, egotistical children. So who’s right? There are studies reporting results that support both sides of the praise argument. Well, as with so much advice out there it seems that moderation is, as ever, the key.
It Ain’t What you do …
…It’s the way that you do it. Remember that song (or am I showing my age??!). There are two psychologists (Henderlong and Lepper) who have spent thirty years analysing the effects of praise, and their informed wisdom suggests that the way in which we offer praise is far more important the how often we do it. They report that the age and maturity level of the child is also key, with babies and young children tending to take praise positively and at face value, where older kids are more alert for insincerity and can respond negatively if they detect it.
Henderlong and Lepper’s studies have found that the following guidelines produce the most positive effect in children:
Being sincere and specific
If you don’t really mean what you say then keep quiet. Older kids in particular are very smart at detecting insincerity and this can leave them feeling under-valued, manipulated and misunderstood. Avoid insincerity by steering clear of over-effusive praise, or compliments that are dished out too readily and regularly.
Praising only those traits that are within the child’s power to change
Praising intellect or talent in some area can backfire on parents, as kids often receive this type of praise as raising the bar for future achievements, making them fearful of failure and less likely to tackle challenges. They learn that making mistakes is an indication they are lacking in some way. Instead of praising their abilities, praise those things they have control over, like their effort or strategies they employed.
Being cautious when praising kids for achievements that were easily attained
Kids aren’t dumb, they know if a task is challenging for them or not, and if you praise them when their achievement is really one that would be expected for their ability you send the message you either don’t understand the task or, worse still, that you underestimate their ability.
Encouraging a mastery of skills for the self, and not in comparison to others
It has been proven that social comparison can improve a child’s motivation (there is a pride in out-performing your peers). But when a child comes up against someone who out-performs them, they are on the negative end of that comparison, and motivation and self-esteem can easily falter as a result. Comparing your child with others also sends the message that winning is more important than self-achievement, and this is damaging because no child will ever be the best at everything.
Avoiding always praising kids for doing stuff they love
If parents always gush with praise when a child does something they actually enjoy, studies have shown that it can in fact turn-off the child from that activity and lead to a rejection of it. Occasional praise is fine, it’s when it is given every single time that a child’s motivation is negatively affected
Using descriptive praise that sends a message about attainable standards
Phrases like ‘Good Job!’ offer judgement. If you describe which part of the effort you are praising instead, such as ‘I like the way you laid out the problem in your essay before going on to offer solutions’, then you are offering a set of standards that can realistically be aimed for again, for another round of success.