The Right Way to Praise Children

Sol2We speak thousands of words in a day. With many of them, we try to encourage a positive self-image in our children or grandchildren:

“Good job, buddy” when he successfully builds a tower with blocks.

“You did great!” when she adds the final puzzle piece.

“You’re so strong” when he makes it across the crossing bars.

“You’re a good helper” when he hands you clean flatware from the dishwasher.

But what if our praises have an effect exactly opposite to what we want to accomplish? What if we’re not helping children feel good about themselves at all?

Researchers, parenting experts, and educators all suggest there are perils in too much praise and the wrong kind of praise.

We give children too much praise when we do it almost without thinking and when we give it whether anything praiseworthy has actually happened.

Are participation trophies given with loud cheers to every kid on the team truly deserved praise? NFL linebacker James Harrison didn’t think so, and sent his 6- and 8-year-olds’ participation trophies back.

“While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy,” Harrison said in a post on Instagram. “I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.”

Children begin to tune out praise when it is insincere—and much frequent, offhand praise is just that. The painting really isn’t amazing and beautiful, and the child knows it. At the same time, children can become “praise junkies,” needing their parents’ constant approval rather than valuing their own accomplishments and depending on their own judgments. The result is a child who believes worth is tied to performance and who fears failure—and becomes reluctant to try new things or face challenges.

Children DO need encouragement and praise—but let’s make it the right kind. Experts say to praise the process, not the person.

Person praise focuses on the child’s traits, like intelligence or musical ability—”You’re a good boy”; “You’re so smart”; “You’re really good at this.”

Process praise focuses on the child’s effort and output and doesn’t make a judgment. It gives the child feedback with specific information—“You used a lot of colors in your drawing”; “I can see you are working hard to build your sandcastle”; “You helped your sister up when she fell. That was kind.”

Person praise reduces motivation; children begin to feel that their abilities are fixed and there is no reason to try to go beyond them. The Bible is right when it says, “A flattering mouth causes ruin” (Proverbs 2:28)!

Process praise encourages children to take on challenges, confront weaknesses, and grow. It also communicates family values.

I’ve never counted the number of times I say “Good job, buddy” when I’m with one of my grandsons, but I know it’s a lot. Changing this habit is going to take some work!

– Diane

4 Responses to “The Right Way to Praise Children”

  1. Reply Cheryl Savageau

    Subtle and important differences Diane. Thanks for spotlighting!

  2. Reply Diane Stortz

    Cheryl, there’s a lot of good information online about this subject, with more detail and more examples. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Reply Mary

    in the matter of participation trophies, some kids will never have the physical ability to win..possible the desire, the motivation…but not the ability…so you think they should never receive any acknowledgment of praise for a job done with the best of their ability?

    • Reply Diane Stortz

      You make a good point, Mary. A participation award can be meaningful to some children, and parents and other adults can and should praise children by noticing and commenting on their effort and attitude whenever that’s appropriate. Thanks for commenting!

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