Giving Kids the Right Type of Praise
All kids need plenty of affirmation from adults in order to develop properly. It's how they discover talents and grow the willpower to want to master new things. It's how they come to feel that they are a worthwhile person and it's what forges their developing self-identity. A child who rarely hears any praise from their caretakers would quickly morph into a miserable, disturbed mess. But parents might be surprised to learn that it's not just whether you praise your children, but how you praise kids that matters. Just as there are right and wrong ways to try and build self-esteem, there are right and wrong ways to give your children compliments.
Praise should be given readily, but it also needs to be honest and earned. Psychologist Lori Gottlieb writes that, "When ego-boosting parents exclaim 'Great job!' not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special. Likewise, if the kid participates in activities where he gets stickers for 'good tries,' he never gets negative feedback on his performance. (All failures are reframed as 'good tries.') . . . What starts off as healthy self-esteem can quickly morph into an inflated view of oneself – a self-absorption and sense of entitlement that looks a lot like narcissism." (Gottlieb, 2011, p. 72) You want to be forthcoming with affirmation when your child exhibits a quality that provokes it, but you also don't want to run around giving praise simply for the sake of it.
Other research has demonstrated that the type of praise children receive can matter a great deal. For example, a study in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology gave 400 5th graders puzzles to complete; first a difficult puzzle, which was then followed by an easy one. The first group was praised for their intelligence during the harder puzzle ("You must be smart at this!") whereas the other group was praised for their effort ("You must have worked really hard!"). Then after both groups were unable to complete the difficult puzzles, all the kids were given the easy ones. The "smart" group, discouraged by their previous failure, did 20% worse than they had on the initial round, whereas the ones praised for trying did 30% better – a shift in performance of 50%. (Patz, 2010)
Studies such as this highlight how subtle differences in the way you give praise to a child can have a very real and measurable impact upon how they approach difficult situations in life. With that in mind, here are some guidelines for how you should give a child affirmation.
How to praise kids
1. Praise children for their effort, not their talent
To praise children for their talent implies that they have an inherent gift for greatness that manifests itself without much effort. This message is neither true nor healthy. Praising children for their effort and perseverance, on the other hand, implies that they can tackle difficult challenges through hard work and willpower. Children who believe that outcomes are largely shaped by their own efforts and actions tend to be resilient in the face of adversity. (Werner & Smith, 1992) They show more stability in behavioral and emotional functioning in the face of high stress and recent negative events. (Luthar, 1991; Weist et al., 1995) This is the message you want to be promoting.
So when you offer children praise, try to ensure that most of it focuses around their effort. It's certainly ok to recognize and praise any inert talents a child may have, (we don't want to suggest that telling a child she's beautiful or talented is bad; it's good for children to hear earnest compliments such as this too), but you want this type of affirmation to take a back seat to that which focuses on effort-driven accomplishment.
2. Be specific
Try to offer more specific praise and less general praise. For example, say something along the lines of "it was nice that you helped your little sister get dressed," as opposed to "you're the best big sister ever." Once again, this subtle distinction focuses the reward around what a child does rather than what a child is.
3. Don't overdo praise
If you run around trying to compliment children on every little thing they do, kids will grow dependent on it and begin to need others for constant validation. This becomes a major problem when others aren't as forthcoming with the compliments as you are at home. Keep in mind that children are not without their own system of internal motivation. They need to hear validation from adults, but they don't need it every time they pick up their toys or otherwise act as they are supposed to. When parents go out of their way to pile on the praise ("You're so special; you're so beautiful," etc.) it can create selfish and entitled kids.
4. Praise kids for their courage
Whenever children step out of their comfort zone and take appropriate risks, praise them for doing so. Kids will fail, and perhaps fail quite miserably from time to time. Offering affirmation for a truly best effort when they come up short can develop a healthy attitude towards failure and encourage them to keep trying until they succeed.