For most modern parents, praise is an important component in the toolkit for raising confident, successful kids.
But are you using it well?
I don’t ask this question to trip you up or make you feel guilty. Rather, I want you to think about whether you are using praise as effectively as possible.
Here are a few common ‘praise mistakes’ made by adults in their dealings with children, along with some alternative approaches:
Praise mistake #1: Praising ability rather than effort
The research is very consistent on this: praising effort, not natural ability, is far more effective for building confidence and persistence.
In other words, praise the things that kids can control – not the things they have no control over.
This teaches them to persist and that improvement is possible when they make the effort. You want your child to learn that intelligence and ability are malleable rather than fixed. Then they will be motivated to keep pursuing real, lasting improvement over time.
Praise mistake # 2: Praising results over improvement
The evidence is also clear that parents who overemphasise achievement are more likely to have kids with high levels of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Your focus instead be on recognising improvement and your child’s efforts to do their best. This, again, will teach them that improvement is possible if they persist; it will encourage them to compete against themselves rather than others.
Praise mistake # 3: Over-praising, leading to lack of impact
Common sense suggests that the more you praise the same thing over and over, the less impact that praise will have over time.
My suggestion is that you praise as a poker machine provides winnings, i.e. intermittently. In this way your praise will have the maximum effect.
Praise Mistake #4: Praising what kids automatically do already
Sometimes we praise kids for activities that they are doing automatically, without conscious thought. For some kids this might be keeping their room clean. For others it might be helping with the washing up. It’s fine to praise these things once in a while, but don’t make doing so a habit. All you will achieve is to make this unconscious behaviour conscious, and after a while the praise will be expected.
It is better to show gratitude for tidiness or other automatic behaviours only every so often. Instead, focus your praise on those behaviours that are less automatic but that you would like to become habitual.
Praise mistake # 5: Making praise a very public thing
There’s nothing wrong with praising a child in front of their grandparents or other adults every now and then. It’s great to see a kid puff their chest up with pride!
However, constantly praising a child in public can have some interesting side effects including building greater dependency on the opinions of others, avoiding the taking of learning risks and a heightening of sibling competition.
I suggest that you make praise, encouragement and positive reinforcement a private matter between you and a child – at least most of the time. This will make these things more meaningful. Leave the public praise to others – such as those grandparents.
The last word
I’ll leave you with a final thought about praising correctly from Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of NurtureShock: New Thinking about Raising Children:
“The key is intermittent reinforcement. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”
You'll find more confidence-building ideas that are developmentally-matched to your child's age in Parentingideas Club.
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