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10/22/17 blog post

6 ways to praise your children

Parents recognize the importance of praising their children, and you’d think that would be a pretty simple thing to do. Just say something positive, and you’ll be encouraging their good behavior and building up their confidence.

Psychologists have determined that it’s a bit more complicated. What and how you praise kids turns out to be very important. There have been a number of studies that have cautioned against praising a child’s ability (e.g., “you’re so smart,” “how clever”).  In one research study, ten-year-olds who were recognized for their ability exaggerated how well they subsequently performed. 

In a recent study, Li Zhao and colleagues looked at the impact of ability praise with children ages three and five. Praising kids for their ability resulted in their cheating on a later task.  The scientists speculated that when you praise a stable trait, you inadvertently motive children to uphold their reputation. Having been told during the experiment that “you are so smart,” these kids cheated more often on a subsequent task than a control group of kids. This occurred with both boys and girls, but at a higher frequency with boys.

Don’t stop praising your children, but be mindful of the following.

  1. Praise effort, not just achievement. For some kids, it’s easy for them to complete some academic task or sports activity. Therefore, it’s generally better to acknowledge how hard they worked rather than just an outcome. Avoid praising traits or abilities (e.g., smart, athletic, creative).
  2. Be specific, not general. This varies with the age of your child, but it’s generally better to describe the specific behaviors you want to encourage. “You overcame some serious problems in your science project” is better than “you did a good job in science.”
  3. Be honest. Praise loses credibility and impact if it’s perceived as manipulative or phony. Don’t recognize your child just to make her feel good, as that will be readily recognized and dismissed by your youngster.
  4. Adjust your style. For some kids, a few words in a low-key manner are most effective. Other children like to be recognized in a public setting and need a more demonstrative approach.
  5. Encourage moral behavior and relationship skills. Our kids’ happiness depends more upon their skills in developing honest and meaningful friendships than in solving geometric equations. Praise your children’s skills in problem-solving, communication, resiliency, empathy, and helping others.
  6. Don’t overdo it. Don’t get your children psychologically addicted to recognition by constant praise. Help prepare them for the real world, which is not going to praise them just for going to work on time.