Some people say that it is impossible to give your child too much praise. Others claim that constant praise will spoil your child and make him feel entitled, as if the world owed him something. Besides how much you are praising children, you also have to consider the kind of praise you offer. Which type will encourage your child? Which type might hinder him? How can you offer praise that will have the best outcome?
What is the Right Way to Praise or Encourage?
The fact is that not all encouraging words are equal. If used indiscriminately, some types of encouragement can actually do more harm than good.
The key is in how and when children are praised. Here are some tips on using words of encouragement for kids effectively:
1. Be Specific and Descriptive. Instead of sweeping praises, encourage children using descriptive and specific comments. The less general or generic the praise, the more likely it is factually correct and perceived as sincere.
Point out a specific aspect of the child’s performance and describe what behavior led to good results (“It was good to sort by shape.”). Specific and descriptive comments signal you have paid attention and you really care.
When your child has shared a toy to another child, instead of saying “Well Done!”, you may say “Thank you for being so kind to share the toy with your friend. You make him feel so happy.”
2. Praise Their Effort And The Process, Not Ability. One of the reasons why human is the smartest animal on Earth is because we want to learn and understand cause and effect of matters. Attribution Theory says that the causes people attribute to events affect how they think of and respond to future events.
When children are praised for their effort expended in doing it, they learn to attribute the success to their effort. Effort is a quality that we have the power to control or improve through hard work and practice. These children will therefore focus more on developing skills than on pursuing results per se.
Mastery encouragement helps children adopt a growth mindset that believes in practicing and improving skills. This learning orientation mindset can increase children’s intrinsic motivation, persistence and enjoyment. Following failure, these children believe that they have failed because they simply have not tried hard enough. So they are motivated to try again and tend to improve in performance. In other words, these kids are resilient.
On the other hand, children praised for abilities are attribute the success to the abilities rather than their own effort. Such praises do motivate children who have succeeded to do more and try harder. On the surface, this type of encouragement can increase kids’ motivation. But once these children encounter failure in the praised domain, they also quit faster.
Ability praise sent a subtle message that previous success was due to the praised traits. Failure then implies a lack of a fixed ability. Children with this fixed mindset give up trying more easily when things become difficult. They suffer from achievement-based helplessness. Those who cannot recover to try again after experiencing failure lack the resilience needed to succeed in life.
So praising ability has an immediate benefit in motivation, but it also has a long-term cost in vulnerability when facing failure or difficult situations.
However, ability-vs-effort is not the only determining element in the effectiveness of an encouragement. Other factors include age of the child (can they distinguish ability/effort?) and context of the praise (are they praised after another event that can have other implications?).
To avoid those potential pitfalls, parents can praise the process, which is another type of encouragement related to effort. Process includes not only effort, but also other qualities such as strategies, thoughtfulness, concentration, self-corrections, etc.
When you see your little one have put together the puzzle by himself , instead of saying “You are such a great puzzle-solver!”, you may say “You are good at trying different ways to solve a hard puzzle.” or “I can see that you worked very hard on this.”
3. Avoid Controlling or Conditional Praise. Controlling praise is different from positive informational feedback used to affirm a child’s progress, improvement, or task mastery. It is given with the intent to manipulate or control.
Statement such as “Good! I know you can do better” is intended to motivate the child to try harder next time.
When praise is used as a controlling tool, they utter approval and positive evaluation which is contingent upon good results or performance. These conditional encouragements instill a sense of contingent self-worth in kids.
Children as young as two years old develop a sense of self-worth. Self-worth is a general positive / negative regard (or good / bad) that they feel they deserve from others.
Children who view themselves as having positive self-worth describe themselves in positive terms. They have high self-esteem and usually attribute success or failure to effort.
Children who view themselves as having negative self-worth describe themselves in negative terms. They have low self-esteem and usually attribute success or failure to abilities.
When kids view that their feelings of self-worth are contingent on approval and positive judgement, they seek goals that are self-valuation focused. These kids’ self-worth is then contingent on reaching the goals. For example, if a child feel that his self-worth is affected by how well he plays football, then his goals will be to perform well in practice and matches to increase or maintain a positive self-worth. He will also avoid activities that may result in negative judgement.
To some parents, this may be what they want.
However, it also means that these children will not want to try new things fearing novelty means less expertise to achieve good results. These kids are also less creative and innovative because innovation can potentially disrupt the culture norm resulting in negative judgement. They are also less self-directing and prefer conformity.
Conditional praise also acts as an extrinsic motivation and reduces kids’ intrinsic motivation. Children are more prone to achievement-based helplessness in the face of subsequent difficulties.
It is also worth noting that the negative impact of controlling praises is bigger on girls than on boys.
Instead of saying “Good job! I bet you can do better next time.”, you may say “I like how you’ve drawn this picture using bright colors.” or “I see how much effort you have put into it. You’ve worked hard on this and you’re doing great.”
4. Avoid Comparison Praise. It’s easy to fall into the habit of praising by comparison. After all, that’s how most of us were raised — we were compared in school, in sports, in extracurricular activities, in exams. At times, those comparisons can motivate us to study or work harder.
The problem is it can also backfire when we fail.
Think about how it feels when you compare yourself with a more successful peer. When we perform well, we are excited and motivated. But when we fail, it probably depresses rather than motivates us.
Similarly, comparison praising leaves children vulnerable to future setbacks. Kids who are praised by comparison don’t stop comparing when they fail. Instead, they lose motivation faster.
When these children face difficulties, they demonstrate more negative emotion, frustration and helplessness than children who are mostly praised for their mastery of the task. They become less resilient.
Like conditional praise, social-comparison praise teaches children that winning, not learning, is the goal. This winning-oriented attitude reduces intrinsic motivation affecting children’s desire to learn or to overcome failure.
To prevent failure, these kids avoid challenges or stop learning new things that require skills they don’t already have an advantage over others.
Instead of saying “You are so good, just like your sister.”, you may say ” You solved the problem with such great focus!”
Overpraising, however, condition children to expect praises every time. It becomes an extrinsic reward that reduces, not increases, motivation. Frequent praising also leads children to believe absence of praise signifies failure.
Praises are counterproductive especially when they are given out indiscriminately. They may create over-inflated self-image resulting in narcissistic children.
Sometimes, parents may not even be aware of what the words of praise they use would make an impact on their children’s self-worth. Praise is a double-edged sword. But if parents use it properly, it can be a very powerful motivating force and learning tool.