We live in a culture where a blue ribbon, a gold star, a trophy, or at minimum an enthusiastic “Good job!” has become commonplace and even expected when children participate in an activity, regardless of their effort or outcome. Many feel these practices are important to build a child’s self-esteem and are harmless, but in fact, they are neither.
While each of these events in and of themselves are not individually harmful, and are sometimes perfectly appropriate, the practice of continually praising or over-praising a child can be. The problem with praise is that children begin to expect constant acknowledgement and conversely are alarmed when they don’t get it. They come to rely on external praise rather than develop internal motivation or confidence in their emerging abilities. They stop doing things because they should or they can, and instead do them for the recognition.
Further, according to Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a professor at Columbia University, children who come to rely on praise take fewer risks, because they are unwilling to lose their praise-worthy status. When children seek praise (consciously or unconsciously) they tend to avoid anything they won’t get ‘right’: which is unfortunate because mistakes, trial and error, and risk-taking are critical elements of any learning process.
This matters whether you’re parenting a toddler or teen. The impact of praise on a child starts early. In fact, in a study facilitated by Dr. Dweck children as young as fourteen months had begun developing opinions about themselves and their abilities based on the praise their parents gave them. As children age, if they only define themselves by good grades, winning, or anytime they receive praise, they’ll feel less competent or worthy when these things are absent (i.e. the real world).
So what should we do instead?
As an alternative to praising a child’s end result or the child themselves, we should offer encouragement for their efforts and attitudes. Encouragement can be inspirational and motivating – a gentle, supportive nudge that helps children meet important goals – instead of self-defining and limiting.
And when we do praise children, it should be genuine: praise that is specific (i.e. “That was very kind of you to clean up your toys without being reminded”) rather than generic (i.e. “You are wonderful”) and praise focused on behavior (i.e. “You came up with a very creative solution”) rather than the person (i.e. “You are so smart”).
In Dr. Dweck’s study, children who received encouragement were more likely to believe their intelligence could change and they could do better if they tried hard, whereas children who were praised felt their intelligence was fixed and were already, even in the toddler years, avoiding experiences perceived to be challenging.
Here are a few concrete examples of praise versus encouragement:
|Generic or Person-Centered Praise
||Encouragement or Genuine Praise
|You are always so beautiful.
||I like the combination of patterns you chose to wear today.
||You really stuck with that – your hard work paid off.
|What a smart kid you are!
||I can tell you’re working hard on reading because you finished a longer book.
|What a pretty picture.
||The colors you chose for that sunset are unique.
|You sure are strong.
||That was the first time you’ve jumped rope without stumbling.
|You are so organized.
||I appreciate the way you organized the shelf, it makes it easier to find everything.
|I am so proud of you.
||You look proud of yourself! You really proved you can do it.
Sure – encouragement may not roll off the tongue as easily, but it is worth the effort. Here are a few additional benefits to encouraging children rather than praising them.
- Recognizes and fosters continual growth and effort.
- Does not cause children to compare their achievements, or compete about who is smarter, prettier, faster, etc.
- Fosters independence – children gain a sense that their own abilities can get them what they need and want.
- Emphasizes effort, progress, and improvement rather than just results.
- Recognizes contribution rather than completion or quality over quantity.
- Promotes perseverance rather than giving up if a child doesn’t initially achieve the success he expected.
- Allows children to learn about, rather than measure, themselves.
- Prepares children for real-world challenges where they will be expected to do much more than show up to earn recognition.
- Doesn’t build false self-esteem (i.e. “I am so smart. I can do anything”) but instead builds determination and confidence (i.e. “I have the ability to do many things if I work hard”).
- Does not do for children what they can do for themselves.
Children who receive encouragement or genuine praise are also more resilient. Because they are focused on their effort and believe they can change their circumstances through determination or learning, they are not as shaken by adversity.
On the flip side, children who have been praised for a fixed personal characteristic such as their intelligence or good looks, are confused by set-backs and view them as a personal reflection rather than a growth opportunity. In addition, children who receive stickers or a high fives for doing mundane tasks like putting their shoes on, begin to expect praise when praise isn’t called for and take it personally when it doesn’t come (which will inevitably happen as they age); the praise becomes more important than the achievement.
Of course, it is okay to express pride in your child; it is a natural way to demonstrate love and support. But it is important to understand that if self-confidence and development are the goals, encouragement is a much more useful strategy. After all, when our children are on their own and faced with a challenge, we know it won’t help them to think, “Why can’t I do this? I should be smart enough.” but it will serve them well to think, “This is tough, but with effort I can probably figure it out.”
As parents, we can do a lot in these younger years to build that kind of thinking from the start. There is no need to take drastic steps and snatch the soccer participation trophy out of your child’s hands, but some reflective thoughts and words of encouragement on your child’s effort and growth throughout the season will ensure their joy comes from their developing abilities and confidence in their own skills rather than the shiny award sitting on their shelf.