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The world of only children

Praising Kids: How Proper Praise Helps Children, Part 2

Six paths for maximizing your compliments.


Praising Kids: “Good Job!” Doesn’t Cut It Anymore, Part 1 discusses the problems with over-the-top, glowing praise that focuses on stroking your child’s ego instead of constructive praise that teaches him what it means to do a good job. By focusing on a child’s efforts, not on the child himself, you help build a child’s self-esteem. 

When Praise is Good

Before you throw out praise, let’s look at when it’s good:

  • PRAISE IS GOOD IF IT’S REALISTIC. When praise is consistently reality based, you give your child a fair yardstick with which to judge himself.

  • PRAISE IS GOOD IF IT’S EARNED. “The yard looks wonderful; you did an excellent job of collecting all the leaves!” Or: “Thank you for helping clean up the corner of the garage, it looks really organized and tidy thanks to you.” Earned praise reinforces your child’s effort and is encouraging. 
  • PRAISE IS GOOD WHEN IT IS SPECIFIC: The more specific, the better. Specifics are more instructive than blanket praise; specifics teach your child that she is in control of what she can accomplish. It also helps keep a child from believing that he is infallible which in turn will prepare him future criticism, disappointments or losses.
  • PRAISE IS GOOD USED SPARINGLY. When you repeat a compliment too frequently, constant, arbitrary praise gets tuned out in the same way that yelling does.

So if the right thinking is to moderate praise, how do you make your child feel valued?  How do you build his self-confidence?

6 Paths to Effective Praise

With sweeping praise “out,” here are praise approaches you can implement easily:

1. Encouragement. Encouragement is effective because it: a) allows you to select a characteristic or behavior you want to develop or foster in a positive and constructive way, and b) lets you call attention to the process; you support the process and make progress in building your child’s confidence. When she comes home with a poor grade on a test, you might say: “I like the effort you put into studying. Maybe a bit more next time, you think?” 

You are praising the process, not the outcome. You are making her responsible. 

2. Mirroring. If you are consistently responsive, your child is more likely to be confident. It can be a trick on a skateboard, a gymnastic feat, a piano piece mastered or almost mastered, a tennis match won or almost won. Let her know that you see her and recognize her accomplishments, large and small. Ask to see her collection of dolls, or rocks, or something similar. Observe and talk about how orderly it is; how well she’s protecting it. Or ask, “Where did you find all these things?”

Your undivided attention is worth more than platitudes shouted from another room. Showing an interest in what’s he’s interested packs more of a punch than simply saying, “What a fabulous collection.” It positions your child as an expert — what a confidence boost!

3Listening. Most of us are overscheduled and distracted — often too distracted to give children what they need. They need you to acknowledge them and give them an honest assessment of what they’re doing. Take time to listen, and make sure your children know you’re listening. Listen to complaints and be empathetic. Don’t immediately take your child’s or the teacher’s side, for instance. Hear his point of view.

Allowing your child to explain tells him you value his point of view and observations. Being heard is a powerful motivator.

4. Rewarding. Focus on the direction your child is moving in. You might say: “You improved so much since your last report card. Aren’t you proud of yourself? You should be.” When your child is memorizing a poem or words for a spelling test, you might say: “You almost had it. You’ll get it.” And when your child succeeds (a grade improvement; a sports milestone, for example), you might say: “You got an A! You just proved to yourself that you should never give up.”

You are teaching your child to internalize her abilities and to eventually be able to evaluate herself accurately.

5. Reinforcement. You might say: “I like the song you sang for grandma and grandpa. Would you sing it for me now?” Or, you might ask your child to retell a joke or ask for instruction: “The dog seems to respond so well to your training. Show me how you get him to do that, please.”

Reliving bright moments reminds children of their “strong suits.” You are telling your child she has something worthwhile to offer and share with you. Showing a genuine interest allows a child to relive accomplishments—and this kind of response can cultivate diligenceand determination.

6. Questioning: You might say: “How did you choose the colors for that picture? What did you use to make those lines? It’s so unusual, interesting, real, pretty, cheerful…”

You’re asking about the process—making your child think about how he created his work or tackled a project and what he might do next time.

When you combine these techniques and use them regularly, you put your child on a direct, merited path toward self-confidence. Isn’t that what praise is for in the first place?

Related: Praising Kids: “Good Job!” Doesn’t Cut It Anymore, Part 1

Copyright 2013 by Susan Newman

Susan Newman, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her latest book is The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide.

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