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The Art (and Science) of Giving Your Kids Feedback

3 rules for making criticism and praise motivating.

Giving your child feedback - both criticism and praise - is more than just useful, it's essential. It's hard for kids to get motivated, and impossible for them to stay motivated, when they aren't sure if they are on the right track. So giving well-crafted, frequent feedback is one of our most important jobs as parents.

But as every parent knows, sometimes the feedback we give doesn't seem to be all that motivating. Even with the best intentions, our words of encouragement or disapproval can easily backfire or seem to fall on deaf ears, and many of us have a hard time understanding why.

Luckily, scientific studies of motivation have shed light on why some types of feedback work, and others don't. If you've gotten it wrong in the past (and who hasn't?), then you can do a better job giving your child feedback from now on by sticking to a few simple rules:

Rule #1: When things go wrong, keep it real. It's not easy to tell your beloved son or daughter that they screwed up, knowing it may cause anxiety, disappointment, or embarrassment. But don't make the mistake of protecting your child's feelings at the expense of telling them what they truly need to hear. Remember that without honest feedback, they can't possibly figure out what to do differently next time.

Also, don't take away your child's sense of responsibility for what went wrong (assuming he is in fact to blame), just because you don't want to be "hard" on him. Letting him off the hook for his own mistake, telling him that he "tried his best" when it's clear that he didn't, may leave him feeling powerless to improve.

Rule #2: When things go wrong, fight self-doubt. You child needs to believe that success is within reach, no matter what mistakes he has made in the past. To do this,

- Be specific. What needs improvement, and what exactly can be done to improve?

- Emphasize actions that he has the power to change. Talk about aspects of his performance that are under his control, like the time and effort he put into a practicing, or the study method he used.

- Avoid praising effort when it didn't pay off. Many parents try to console their child by saying things like "Well honey, you didn't do very well, but you worked hard and really tried your best." Why does anyone think that this is comforting? For the record - it's not. (Unless, of course, it was a no-win situation from the start).

Studies show that being complimented for "effort" after a failure not only makes kids feel stupid, but also leaves them feeling like they can't improve. In these instances, it's really best to stick to purely informational feedback - if effort isn't the problem, help them figure out what is.

Rule #3: When things go right, avoid praising ability. I know we all like to hear how smart and talented we are, and so naturally we assume that it's what our kids want to hear too. Of course they do. But it's not what they need to hear to stay motivated.

Studies show that when children are praised for having high ability, it leaves them more vulnerable to self-doubt when they are faced with a challenge later. If being successful means that he is "smart," then he's likely to conclude that he isn't smart when he's having harder time.

Make sure that you also praise aspects of your child's performance that were under his control. Talk about his creative approach, his careful planning, his persistence and effort, his positive attitude. Praise his actions, not just his abilities. That way, when he runs into trouble later on, he'll remember what helped him to succeed in the past and put that knowledge to good use.

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals is available wherever books are sold. Please follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson.

More from Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D.
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