Healthy Praise – 3 Practical Tips

Healthy Praise – 3 Practical Tips

In our last post, we discussed how not all praise is equal. In fact, if praise were like food, some praise is like the finest organic fruit and vegetables, while other praise is like junk food which is plain unhealthy and even harmful (if you missed the post, go here).

However, there is so much research out there on the effects of praise, that we took the opportunity to sift through much of it for you and bring you the three most important things to remember when praising your children.

We believe that knowledge is all fine and well, but we need to find a way to apply it to our lives in a practical way, otherwise it can just become another ‘burden’ that weighs us, as parents, down.

We really hope these tips, which are based on real studies, will help you to see how to use praise in the way that we know it is intended – as a tool to nurture and grow our children’s abilities and talents.

Praising Tip #1

DO praise your children for things that are within their power to change.

Praise your child for good manners, working hard, persevering at a task, for thinking of clever ways to solve a problem, for being a team player, for treating others with respect, following instructions, doing more than what was expected and other good choices that your child makes. By praising your child for things that are within his power to change, you are communicating to him that he has the power to make the right choices and that his efforts are recognised.

DO NOT praise your child by telling him how smart or talented he is.

It is not healthy to respond to your child’s successes by saying, “Look how SMART you are!”

Children easily get the idea that adults observe them from a distance, rating how they fare at certain tasks, with the goal of stereotyping into little boxes marked with signs like ‘genius’, ‘above-average’, ‘average’ and ‘stupid’, and it scares them. What if they are confronted with something they can’t do? Will adults see their failure as a sign that they are not as smart as they once thought? Will a mistake lead to a loss of love or respect?

These children don’t want to risk losing their little ‘gifted’ tags that have been hung around their necks and as a result, they avoid challenges (Mueller and Dweck 1998).

Praising Tip #2

DO be sincere and specific

Wait for a real opportunity to praise your child. Then be specific and give information about what impressed you, for example, “This picture is my favourite. I like how you took your time and used many different colours.”

Keep in mind that, by giving information about what you appreciate, you are conveying a standard that is shaping how your child will act in future. So be careful to set reasonable standards and not unintentionally inhibit your child with your comments. If you would, for instance, always say that you like  a picture because he used blue and green, then he may never use orange and red again!

DO NOT praise in a way that is overenthusiastic or undeserved

Very young children will likely take a parent’s praise at face value, but older children are a different story. As children mature, from about the age of 3-4, they become aware a parent’s possible motives for praising them, and they respond negatively to insincere praise.

When you praise a child in a situation where they feel that they didn’t really deserve the recognition, they may feel that you think they are in need of encouragement and that you are praising them because you feel sorry for them (Meyer 1992).

A child may also feel as though you are trying to be manipulative, or that you don’t really understand them (Henderlong and Lepper 2002).

Praising Tip #3

DO focus on your child as an individual

Be truly interested and involved in a child’s personal interests, growth and successes, regardless of what other children are like, do or achieve. Praise a child when he does something right or masters something, and not for outperforming other children.

DO NOT use praise that compares your child to others

Children who are praised for outperforming others initially respond well by trying hard to make their parents proud. However, they become so focused on winning that they don’t learn to enjoy the activity itself, and when they no longer win, they lose interest.

Many of these children also react by avoiding challenges, because they have a real fear of not being the best. This kind of praise doesn’t prepare them for coping with failure and it doesn’t teach them making mistakes is an important and valuable part of learning (Elliot and Dweck 1988).

Mueller CM and Dweck CS. 1998. Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal for Personality and Social Psychology 75(1): 33-52

Meyer W.-U. 1992. Paradoxical effects of praise and criticism on perceived ability. In: W. Strobe and M. Hewstone (eds): European review of social psychology, volume 3. Chichester, England: Wiley.

Henderlong J and Lepper MR. 2002. The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin 128(5): 774-795.

Words: Loren Stow
when we know better… we do better

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