Effective praise is an important tool in raising confident kids with a healthy sense of self-esteem. However, the quality of praise is definitely more important than the quantity used. If praise is genuine, sincere and focused on the effort, not the outcome, adults can give it as often as a child does something that warrants a verbal reward.
Ineffective praise may be too global: “You’re the best swimmer in the whole world” can feel inauthentic and impossible to be believed. Effective praise avoids the use of extremes such as “always” and “never,” which are rarely true. “You’re always so well behaved” actually may foster anxiety in the child that she or he will be discovered as less than perfect.
Specific praise often is easier to accept for children who are easily embarrassed by being the focus of attention. It also can help children who have become dependent on frequent external approval to focus inward. Saying, “It must feel good to have missed only one spelling word after all of that studying,” not, “I’m proud of you,” also shifts that focus.
There are many examples of effective praise:
• Comments that focus on effort and practice: “You worked hard to learn to play the piano, and you really rocked that piece.”
• Specific mention of behaviors: “You picked up all of the clothes that were on the floor and now your room looks tidy” versus “Great job,” which is nonspecific.
• “I noticed that you passed the ball to your teammates regularly rather than holding on to it. That’s being a good team player.”
• “I feel happy when I look at your drawing; the colors and movement are really cheerful,” versus “What a beautiful drawing!” or “You’re a great artist!”
Carol Dweck has done many studies to look at what motivates children. She found that praising a child’s effort leads to more success, while praising a child’s character can have the opposite effect.
One study looked at fifth-graders working on a puzzle. After it was completed, some students were told, “You must have worked really hard on this” while others were told, “You must be really smart at this.” The children who were told they were smart were more likely to give up or do worse on subsequent, more challenging puzzles. Those who were praised for their efforts were more likely to rise to the challenge and try hard on future puzzles. So instead of saying, “You’re so good at writing,” try “I noticed how much thought you put into that writing assignment and you really wrote a clear, well-organized paper.” This focuses more on efforts. For more information, visit http://mindsetonline.com.
Dweck’s conclusion is: “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”