In one of my parenting classes, we spoke about the drawbacks of praising kids and the difference between evaluative praise and descriptive praise. Evaluative praise is the type of compliment that sounds good but makes most people feel pressured and uncomfortable. It does nothing to improve self-esteem. Phrases like:
“You are the best!”
“You are so sweet!”
“You are such a good girl!”
Descriptive praise is the type of compliment that highlights positive actions and basically describes what you have seen your child do. For example:
- “When Sara wanted to play with the Wii, you let her have a turn.”
- “I see that you cleaned the Legos in the family room and now are working on the dolls. This room is getting cleaner.”
After our discussion one woman, Naomi, shared with us. “I have always had low self-esteem. I could never understand why. My family was very loving. But now I understand! I was always told, you are so beautiful, you are so smart, or you are the best artist. I would get so irritated with my parents. It made feel so pressured and small. It all makes sense.”
Naomi is not alone. Most kids and even adults feel uncomfortable when they are praised in an evaluative manner. The latest research has shown that pat phrases like “Nice work,” ”Good boy,” and ”You are so clever,” are actually bad for kids (and not great for adults either). This type of encouragement is hard for people, especially children, to hear. It creates tension and is counterproductive.
The same holds true for the use of superlatives as seen here. “You are the greatest ball player! You are the brightest in your class!” When kids hear this type of praise they are put into a position where they feel they always have to be the best. They need to live up to their so-called reputation, which is impossible for kids to manage.
The drawbacks don’t stop there. Children who are given heavy doses of “good job” tend to be less confident in proposing ideas that others might disapprove and could lead to lower self-esteem. They often won’t make decisions based on what they think is right. Instead, they will spend a lot of time trying to figure out what to do and what to say to make the adults in their lives happy. This type of praise breeds insincerity.
So, knowing what we know – that praise can be awfully detrimental – how can we encourage our kids and improve their self-esteem?
Here are two great ways for us to effectively praise our kids:
1.) Don’t judge, just see
In order for praise to work, we need to avoid using judgment words. We just want to notice our children’s actions as if we were asked to objectively describe a scene playing out in front of us.
- “Your room had clothing all over the floor and now all that clothing is hung up or in the laundry basket!”
- “You set the table. You put out the dishes, cutlery, napkins and plates.”
- “You got the ball and you kicked it to your teammate and he made the goal!”
Praising kids in this way encourages them and builds their self-esteem. It gives them clear pictures of what their capabilities are – independent of whether or not anyone is noticing – so that they don’t have to seek out approval. It is information about themselves that they can use when they are alone, not just when adults are watching. Then they are able to infer on their own.
- “I can be helpful.”
- “I am a team player.”
- “I know how to clean my room.”
2. Notice that they try
Another great way to praise kids is to notice the effort they bring to a task, instead of the end result. It sounds like this:
- “Your homework tonight sounds challenging. You books are open and you look ready to tackle it.”
- “When you played chess with Grandpa today, I saw you thinking about your moves very carefully. You had some interesting moves. I think Grandpa was impressed with your strategy.”
This type of praise builds kids up because they know that they don’t have to be the “best” – they just know they need to try their hardest to succeed. Research has shown that this is the type of praise that truly motivates kids to perform well. We can and should praise our kids, but the praise needs to be more meaningful. Describing what we see and focusing on their effort our 2 great ways to praise our children with substance.