The Perils of Praise
By Joanna Faber and Julie King, authors and workshop leaders at Parents Place
Parenting advice can give you whiplash. Be consistent but flexible, kind but firm, always supportive but never hovering.
One of our favorite crazy-making contradictions is: It’s important to strengthen your child’s self-esteem … but be careful not to overpraise!
Just thinking about it is exhausting. There are so many ways to go wrong, why even open your mouth?
Luckily, as long as you’re not being filmed for a reality TV show, nobody will rake you over the coals if you don’t praise your progeny perfectly. Still, if you’re in the mood for some new ways to praise, read on to learn about the types of praise that are most and least helpful to children.
“Good boy!” “Great job!” “Excellent, beautiful, perfect, the best!”
Evaluative praise is strangely too much and too little at the same time. Too much because superlatives don’t come across as authentic. Too little because they can feel dismissive. It’s easier to say “good job” than it is to pay close attention to something a child is showing us. Often kids will respond, “But do you really like it?”
What’s more, evaluative praise can interfere with a child’s process and actually inhibit their willingness to take chances. Children who are slathered with evaluative praise may lose confidence when faced with new challenges, notes Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a leading researcher in the fields of motivation and mindset. Researchers found that children who are constantly told they’re talented in math have a harder time than the “non-talented” children when finally (and inevitably) they come up against a math problem they can’t solve easily. It’s not hard to imagine why. The “talented” kids are taking a strong blow to their self-image when the answers don’t come quickly. They’d rather act bored or defiant than risk not living up to the evaluation of their parents and teachers.
So how can we respond to our kids in a way that will bring out the best in them and demonstrate our pleasure in their accomplishments while also increasing their confidence and willingness to take on greater challenges?
Four Ways to Give Helpful Praise
- Describe what you see
Resist the urge to evaluate. Simply describe.Instead of, “That’s a beautiful picture! Very nice.”Try, “I see a blue house with a red door. And here’s a big round knob to open the door. And the sun is shining down on two cheerful purple flowers.”Or for the abstract artist:”I see tiny little dots bouncing around! And a green zig-zag coming up underneath the dots. And here is a glow of orange in the corner.”
It can be enormously satisfying to a child when an adult takes the time and effort to notice the details of her creation.
- Describe effort
What about the kid who’s feeling discouraged and seems to need some emotional support? “I can’t do this. It’s too hard!”Instead of, “It’s not that hard. You’re doing a great job. Just keep trying.”Try, “That looks difficult! It’s not easy to make the letters in those skinny little spaces. It takes a lot of finger muscles!”
When a child’s effort is acknowledged, it can give her the courage to persevere.
- Describe progress
How about the kid who hasn’t finished a chore?Instead of, “Why are you playing with trucks? You’re not finished cleaning up. This room is still a big mess!”Try, “I see that you picked up all the dirty socks and threw them in the basket. I can see the floor! All that’s left to make this room ready for visitors is to put the used tissues in the garbage and the cars in the bin.”
Your child will be more inspired to finish a job if you start by appreciating what he’s already accomplished than if you give in to temptation and berate him for his meager efforts.
- Describe the effect on others
Try this technique during those times when you want to encourage prosocial behavior.Instead of: “Good boy. I knew you could be gentle with the baby if you tried.”Try, “I see baby is smiling. She likes it when you blow bubbles for her.”
Notice that in all cases, the adults are not exaggerating the children’s accomplishments to give a false impression of excellence. Instead they are giving useful feedback that gives children an accurate picture of their achievements.
Finally, we need to recognize those times when we don’t need to say anything at all. When a child is happily engaged in an activity, we don’t have to loom over her and offer unsolicited comments. Think about how you’d feel if you were cooking dinner with your partner sitting a few feet away saying, “Nice technique slicing those onions. Good choice of cooking oil. Your carrots are very evenly diced. You’re displaying an effective grip on that can opener.” How many minutes could you put up with that before screaming, “Leave me alone!”
We can allow our kids to experience the pleasure of working at something that interests them without the interference of adult commentary.
Attend Julie’s Parents Place workshops:
How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: Sunday Intensive, Sunday, January 27, 10AM-4:30PM, Parents Place, Marin
How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: Sunday Intensive, Sunday, February 10, 10AM-4:30PM, Parents Place, Palo Alto
Joanna Faber and Julie King are the authors of How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7, which has been ranked a #1 best-seller on Amazon in both the U.S. and Canada, and is being translated into 17 languages world-wide. Julie is a parent educator and workshop leader at Parents Place.