Praising Children

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Often we're so intent on doing things right that we can inadvertently go about it the wrong way.   Praise is positive, we're supposed to be positive towards our children and praise helps achieve this.  We all like receiving praise as it helps inflate ye olde self esteem and surely that is part of the parents job description to top up their self esteem.

So what if I told you that sometimes, praising too much can be counter-productive?


If you praise too often it becomes meaningless and expected and a child either becomes immune to it or else reliant on it to validate their own self worth neither of which are the preferred reactions to praise.

Sometimes, without realising it, we use praise in place of other things because it's convenient.

If a child does something and we reward them with 'Good Boy/Girl!' they associate being good as only connected to obedience or achievement.

A few more things to think about when praising our children are:

* You're the best ....... in the universe

It sounds terrifically uplifting and is great for a child to hear, sure they'll beam from ear to ear yet is it really an appropriate statement to make?  If you tell them they're the best at something you are giving them neither reason, motivation nor inspiration to do better plus it's inevitable that there may be someone who is better than them at the given thing be it maths or football and thus that then invalidates your praise.  You essentially lied to them and your praise is rendered false and untrustworthy.

* Is it really praise?

If a child completes a task it's easy to say 'well done' or 'great job' when in actual fact what should be said is thank you.  Sometimes it's appreciation and recognition that is needed, not praise.  Why not say 'Thank you for clearing the table it was a great help' or 'I really appreciate it when you help me tidy up'  The child then gets the gratification of knowing they have contributed to helping someone.

* It's not the end result

Don't make the emphasis of your praise be towards the end result, praise the process.  If your child aced a spelling test rather than 'excellent you got them all right! Well done!' you could say 'I'm really proud of how hard you worked to learn your spellings!'  Likewise if they didn't do as well as expected rather than say 'A c is great too' you could instead make their effort the subject of praise as it will be the effort that will get them to learn more and praising the effort will motivate more effort i.e. 'You worked really hard for them, I'm proud of you and now we know which ones we can work on some more'  Praise how they achieved something not what they achieved.  Compliment their effort, enthusiasm and progress.

* Be specific

If you just say well done, the praise can seem a little generic and empty.  If you praise the specific act or achievement it shows you're invested enough to show interest and pay attention to detail such as 'Wow, thankyou for clearing the table that was a huge help and really thoughtful of you' or 'That's an excellent tower you're building, I love all the colours you're using and the way you've made a door!' if they've painted a picture, compliment the details, it shows you're interested and taking notice which will in turn encourage them to do more 'Look at that flower you've drawn, you've even drawn it's stem and leaves!' 

* Don't praise everything

If you praise everything, your child will only be motivated through the validation provided from others as opposed to the sense of gratification felt through seeing the consequences of their actions. They will only feel successful when validated by others. Competence is gained through experiencing the effects of what you've done and not through being told about it.

*  Be careful of what aspects you praise

Try and praise aspects of our child that they have control over such as attitude, commitment, responsibility and generosity etc.  These are all elements that a child can control and change through effort as opposed to achievement.  If you praise your child over something they cannot control nor change such as an innate affinity to playing an instrument or sport, their intelligence then the other things that require more effort can be seen as failures as they equate success and ability with praise measuring it up against things they're already naturally gifted at.  If you constantly praise their intelligence then should they struggle with say a hula hoop they may equate that struggle with stupidity.

* It's all about them

It's important for children to feel the positivity of their own success.  When praising a child for something they have achieved instead of 'I think you did great!' try 'I bet you feel amazing!'

* Bragging

I know, I know, it's so tempting to brag when our children are especially good at something yet if your child hears you brag to others about them it actually puts them under an immense and unfair amount of pressure to achieve, not to mention that you will irritate the shit out of the people you're bragging to.  However, it is okay to brag to say, your partner when you know your child is near as this then gives them the chance to demonstrate or tell them about their achievement too.

*It's good to talk

Encourage them to talk to you about what they do, if they have an idea or have made an observation encourage them to expand on it, let them feel their own pride through explaining something to you so rather then 'That's great' something like 'That's really interesting, can you tell me some more about it?' Ask them what they liked best about a project or performance etc, ask they how it made them feel.  This allows them to reflect upon and reward themselves for their own achievements, let them decide for themselves how they feel about what they've done.

* Don't assume

If your child writes a story or paints you a picture, don't just assume it's 'great'.  You may say 'That's a lovely picture!' yet the picture may have supposed to have been scary or sad.  Ask them to tell you about what they've done, to describe it for you.

* People not achievements

Whilst it's important to recognise and praise what our children do it's equally important to praise who they are.  Tell them what you love about them, maybe it's their smile or their ability to make you laugh?  Encourage positive traits within them through naming them such as 'That was really kind of you to help your brother tie his shoes' or 'You waited really patiently!'

* Be truthful

We all want to be our childs greatest cheerleader but they're not daft, even small children can recognise false praise.  If your child is struggling to do something, don't lie.  Your child has been trying for ages to draw a dinosaur and they're obviously not happy with it, they've crossed some out, crumpled them up... don't say 'That's an amazing dinosaur!' it really won't help matters instead recognise their effort and commitment 'I see you're working hard on drawing a dinosaur!'  You're not defining what they've done as good as bad, you're respecting their effort and showing them that you have noticed they're trying.

* Too much of a good thing

Your child has used the toilet for the first time, it's an epic moment and it's absolutely natural to want to praise them.  However, if you cheer everytime they then go to the toilet or brush their teeth themselves or put their own clothes on then they will become immune to the power of true praise.  If they get cheered for eating all their dinner and all the other little everyday things they won't see it as anything special and start to discount it.  Not only that they may start to think that they have to try and impress you with everything they do which is hardly motivating let alone inspiring for them, even the thought of that is exhausting!  Children generally know when they've done something well, let them realise this and be their own positive re-enforcer sometimes.  Allow them to realise that they don't need to rely on someone else to feel good about their accomplishments!

* Lets get physical

Actions can speak louder then words, sometimes a hug, pat, high-five etc can speak volumes and punctuates any words you may speak in praise.  It's reassuring, grounding and sometimes, words can actually be distracting.  To listen a child will generally stop what they're doing, if you give hem a gentle squeeze as you pass it tells them you're recognising what they're doing and showing your pride whilst enabling them to continue what they're doing.  Likewise, sometimes a huge smile can say more then words.

* You don't have to praise

Uh huh, you read that right.  No, really.  You don't have to praise them for them to know they've done something positive.  This works especially well for Toddlers.  Sometimes a simple smile and statement 'You drew a circle!' is enough to let the child realise 'I did it!' which is what matters really.  You're celebrating their independence and accomplishments with them rather than for them through recognition as opposed to praise.


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