It’s a normal impulse to express our love for our kids by telling them how smart, talented, and all-around awesome they are. Our intention is to boost their self-esteem and motivate them, but overdoing the adoration can have the opposite effect. Researchers have found that praising the “wrong” way can make kids too dependent on others’ opinions and hesitant to take on challenges because they’re afraid to fail. Done well, praise can teach kids the value of effort and encourage them to be resilient through tough times.
To praise the right way, keep these tips in mind:
- Avoid telling your child, “you’re so smart” or “you’re a math/science/reading whiz.” The downside of praising qualities such as intelligence is that kids may start to focus on living up to the label of “the smart kid.” The result: They’re leery of taking on challenges such as attempting to solve harder math problems or puzzles or volunteering an answer in school because they’re afraid to fail—and potentially disprove their label.
- Focus on the effort not the end result. Remember the old chestnut, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game?” That thinking applies here. If your child kicks the winning goal at his soccer game, instead of emphasizing the goal, a better option is to praise him for his dedication to the game and giving it his best shot.
- Get specific. Zero in on a particular action rather than saying a generic “good job.” A specific compliment tells your child that you’re paying attention and gives him a concrete example of the behavior or attitude you’re hoping to perpetuate. The next time your little one calmly asks his sister for a turn with a toy instead of yanking it out of her hands, praise the kind way he handled the situation so he knows you noticed.
- Be genuine. Skip the superlatives—most kids know they’re not “the best” artist, athlete or student ever. Likewise, if your child is struggling with a task—for example, playing a new piece on the piano, don’t offer false praise such as, “It sounded good to me.” It’s better to say, “I can see you’re really working hard on that song.” Kids are masters at detecting insincere praise, and instead of giving them the boost you’re intending, it can make them question your credibility.
- Give compliments when they’re earned. You don’t have to be stingy, but don’t overdo it or you risk conditioning your child to expect applause for every little action. While you might praise her the first time she loads the dishwasher by herself, you don’t need to strike up the band every time she puts in a dirty dish. A simple “thanks for your help” will make her feel good because she knows you appreciate her contribution.
Steal These Lines
Still not sure what to say? Use these do’s and don’ts as a guide:
The situation: Your child earns 10 out of 10 on her spelling test.
Don’t say: “You’re so smart!”
Do say: “You prepared by practicing your words and it worked!”
The situation: Your preschooler shows you a painting she made.
Don’t say: “You’re the best artist I’ve ever seen.”
Do say: “I like how you used such vibrant colors. I can see you put a lot of effort into your painting.”
The situation: Your son’s t-ball team wins a game.
Don’t say: “You’re such an amazing t-ball player.”
Do say: “It looks like you really enjoy t-ball. The time you’ve spent practicing has helped you improve your hitting and catching.”
The situation: Your little one has a successful playdate.
Don’t say: “You’re a good girl!”
Do say: “I like how nicely you shared the blocks with your friend.”