How and When to Praise Your Child

The words parents use with their children are one of the most powerful tools for shaping a child’s behaviors and attitudes. Praise can be extremely effective in helping your child learn life skills that can be applied later. However, research has demonstrated that some types of praise can actually undermine a child’s confidence and have the opposite effect on a child’s self-esteem. Here are some tips you may want to keep in mind when praising your child.

Praise effort, not the outcome

Children know when they do well. They develop confidence in their abilities by seeing their successes, not by being told about them. It is natural for parents to want to praise their children’s accomplishments. There is nothing wrong with telling your child how proud you are of him for bringing home a good report card or scoring the winning goal in his soccer game. However, it is also important to praise your child’s efforts regardless of the outcome. According to the Massachusetts Medical Society, praise can help your child develop persistence and learn how to do things correctly. Here’s an example:


Brandon, a third grade student, struggles with math. Homework time is often accompanied with tears and comments such as, “I’m stupid,” or, “I’ll never get this.” No matter how many times his parents tell him that he is smart and that it just takes practice, Brandon’s aversion to math persists. One night, Brandon’s mother noticed that he was half-way through his math page without any tears. She commented, “I see that you finished with half of your assignment and are working really hard.” By recognizing Brandon’s effort, his mother sends him a message that hard work is valued.

“Catch” your child being good

All children need attention. To a child, negative attention is better than no attention at all. Make a point to “catch” your child displaying the behaviors that you want. The behaviors that you focus on are often the behaviors that you will get…good or bad. Praising your child’s good behavior teaches your child that the best way to get your attention is to be good.


Praise is also a very effective way to teach your child about the positive consequences of good behaviors. For example, “Thanks for getting your homework done so quickly. Now you have extra time to play,” or, “That was kind of you to help me with your brother. Now I have extra time to read you a book.”

Offer a “double dose” of praise for an added punch

When your child does something that you want to reinforce double, offer the regular praise and add a statement such as, “I can’t wait until your dad gets home so that I can tell him what you did.” Often, parents reserve this statement for negative behaviors. However, it is a very powerful way to reinforce positive behaviors. When dad comes home recount your child’s accomplishment to him in front of your child. Dad can then offer praise giving a “double dose” to reinforce the positive behavior.

Five Don’ts When Praising Your Child

1. Don’t praise by comparison

Telling your child that she is the best athlete on her team or the smartest girl in her class creates a competitive environment that may seem impossible for her to sustain. While there is nothing wrong with competition (i.e. teaching children that games have winners and losers) praising a child by comparing her to others generally sets up unhealthy expectations.

2. Don’t slide in negative comments

A negative tail at the end of a positive statement completely reverses the intended effect of the praise. Here’s an example: “You worked hard to pick up all your toys. Why can’t you do that all the time?” As much as you may want to say the final sentence, leave it off. Recognizing your child’s effort without bringing up past failures is far more effective in shaping future behaviors.

3. Don’t praise constantly

Children know when they do a good job. Research has demonstrated that offering constant praise for routine tasks or mediocre performance can erode your child’s confidence. Constant praise may make your child feel like a fraud and can also make your child leery of all praise. The goal is for your child to feel good about his efforts and accomplishments without depending on you to acknowledge his behavior.

4. Don’t praise innate characteristics

Praising innate characteristics (i.e. intelligence, beauty, athletic ability) can make children less resilient when facing difficult situations. Research has demonstrated that children who are praised for things that they feel are outside of their control are more likely to exhibit helpless behaviors when faced with a challenge. After your child finishes reading a book it may have a greater impact to say, “You read that book all by yourself!” rather than, “You are so smart.” By not telling your child that he is smart, you allow your child to come to this conclusion on his own. See below for a more in-depth discussion on this topic.

5. Don’t make praise about you

Praise should be centered on your child and how his behaviors make him feel…not on how the behaviors make you feel. For example, replace, “I feel happy when you share with your sister,” with, “That was generous of you to share with your sister.” Let your child decide how generosity makes him feel. Children should not depend on others for how they feel about their own efforts and accomplishments. As noted earlier, the goal is for children to develop an internal sense of accomplishment so that their behaviors are not dependent on outside rewards. Internal reinforcement helps children to persist when things become more difficult or when external rewards disappear.

What research has to say about praising intelligence

In 1998, Carol Dweck and her associates conducted a comprehensive study on the effects of praise on a group of 400 fifth grade students. The study was divided into four rounds.

Round 1: Students were given a nonverbal IQ test consisting of an easy series of puzzles. Upon completion, one group was praised for their intelligence by being told, “You must be smart at this.” The other group was praised for their effort being told, “You must have worked really hard.”

Round 2: Students were given the choice between two tests. They were told that one test would be more difficult than the first, but they would learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other test would be easy, like the first one they had just completed. Of the group praised for their effort, the majority of students chose the harder puzzles. The majority of students praised for their intelligence chose the easy test. Dweck concluded that when children are praised for their intelligence, it sends a message that looking smart is valued over risking mistakes.

Round 3: All students were given a difficult test designed for children 2 years ahead of them. All of the students struggled with these tasks, but the responses from the two groups were very different. The students praised for their effort during the first round tended to persist longer than those praised for their intelligence. Dweck concluded that students praised for their intelligence assumed that their failure with the task was evidence that they weren’t really smart and gave up easily.

Round 4: All students were given an easy test similar to that administered in Round 1. The effort group improved their scores by about 30%, while scores of the group praised for their intelligence decreased by about 20%. Dweck attributed this change in scores to the fact that effort is something a child can control, while intelligence is outside of a child’s control.

Children praised for their effort, rather than for their intelligence, see themselves as in control of their successes. They are more likely to respond to failure by exerting more effort rather than giving up.

Resources:

Mueller, C. M. & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1) 33-52.

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