Best Ways to Praise Kids and Boost SELF-confidence
by Ronica O’Hara
Giving ample kudos to our kids is an everyday part of parenting. To motivate youngsters to excel in school and activities, we pat them on the back repeatedly in ways that were unimaginable a century ago, when even kissing babies was frowned upon by many. In one survey, 85 percent of American parents said that praising their children’s ability or intelligence when they perform well helps kids feel smarter.
But praise turns out to be a double-edged sword, as recent decades of psychological and educational research have made clear. Yes, praise can build character, motivation and resilience, just as parents hope. But when done unskillfully, say psychologists, it can have the opposite effect and actually lower children’s confidence, dampen their motivation and stifle intellectual growth. Some of the research-based advice that has emerged includes:
Praise Effort, Not Intelligence
Numerous studies have found that when children are repeatedly given accolades for their intellect or talent, they can come to believe those traits are innate and fixed, which then makes them more fearful of failing or even encountering challenges. On the other hand, when kids are taught that success depends on continued effort and hard work, they are more likely to seek out challenges, apply themselves to tough tasks and be resilient in the face of failure. Suggested parental statements include:
“I like the way you tried a lot of different strategies on that math problem until you finally got it.” “That was a hard English assignment, but you stuck with it until you got it done.” “Mistakes are so interesting. Let’s see what we can learn from it.”
Don’t Go Over the Top
Paradoxically, getting praised too lavishly can shake children and make them less likely to take risks. “Research has shown that extreme praise—using words like “incredible” or “best ever”—can create an excessive expectation that the child can feel incapable of meeting. They tend to become less tolerant of their mistakes, and tolerance of mistakes is a critical element in ultimate success,” says clinical psychologist John F. Tholen, Ph.D., in Seal Beach, California, author of Focused Positivity. Excessive praise can also nudge overconfident children toward narcissism, especially if it involves comparison with other children.
Focus on Character and Agency
When children are praised for positive aspects of their character such as being kind, resourceful or helpful, they are more likely to be generous and openhearted with others. Researchers have also found that when parents focus on and support a child’s self-determined reasons for engaging in a task, it increases the child’s sense of agency and capacity to act effectively, which helps them to move through the world with greater ease and self-confidence. Some suggested parental statements are:
“You made that decision very carefully and wisely.” “You were very kind in how you made the new girl feel welcome.” “It’s great to see how determined you are to do something exciting for your science fair project.”
Research shows that when praise is general or sweeping, like, “Good job!”, kids tend to doubt its sincerity, whereas praise that gives more information is felt by them to be meaningful. “Focusing on increasing the specificity of the praise allows children to learn more quickly which behaviors you like and want to see more frequently,” says pediatric psychologist Alyssa Fritz, Ph.D., of the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Institute for Brain Protection Sciences, in St. Petersburg, Florida. “A good rule of thumb is to provide three instances of specific positive attention for every one command or correction.” Suggested parental statements are:
“You kept practicing pumping your legs on the swing, and now you can do it!” “Thank you so much for cleaning up the garage. I really appreciate how hard you worked.” “That was a tough skill to learn on the ball field, but you kept at it until you could do it.”
If children detect insincerity in a parent’s praise, they may assume they are being manipulated or misunderstood. Older kids in particular have a keen ear for offhand words of meaningless praise. “Be enthusiastic, while remaining genuine. Praise those things that truly make your heart warm, or make your day easier, or make you proud of your child’s progress,” says Carole Swiecicki, Ph.D., a psychologist and owner of Harbor Maple Counseling and Psychological Services, in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. “Even small statements, when said from the heart, have a positive impact on children.”