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The Nuances of Praise: 5 Things to Remember When Praising Your Child




Building the self-esteem of children has been a primary focus for parents, educators, and caregivers—especially in recent years. We inherently understand the research-proven connection between high self-esteem and success. And rightly so.


High self-esteem is a consistent predictor of success and overall well-being.


Praise is a way that we communicate love, encouragement, and acceptance—which are building blocks of self-esteem. Praise can be a helpful motivator. However, researchers have studied how praise affects children, and it turns out there are nuances that we should be aware of.


1. Don’t Rely on Praise to Manipulate Behavior


We’ve all done it. Sometimes we resort to bribery as a last ditch effort to control our kids. We offer the candy bar before dinner or the coveted toy at the store to convince our child to act how we want them to act.


But whether you’ve been doing this parenting thing for a short or long time, you’ve probably learned that bribery isn’t an effective parenting solution—at least not a long term one.


A lot of parents use praise to attempt to control the behavior of their child. While it makes sense to reinforce good behavior, try not to let this become your number one tool.


Research shows that using praise to control a child’s behavior can have adverse effects, especially on the intrinsic motivation of the child. One of our goals as parents is to help our child become intrinsically motivated—which means that they do things because they want to. Your child may be motivated by the enjoyment she finds in an activity or the feeling of personal achievement when he accomplishes a task.


Children (and adults) who are intrinsically motivated are often more creative, ambitious, hard-working, and dedicated.


Intrinsic motivation is sustainable and often helps people bounce back after failure. However, too much praise—especially when used to manipulate behavior—can encourage children to become externally motivated, which means they rely on external factors, such as praise, to be motivated to accomplish a task.


It’s not wrong to praise your children when they follow the rules or accomplish a task. But instead of always using praise to manipulate your child’s behavior, try helping them understand the “why” behind things, first. Sometimes using praise to manipulate behavior is insincere and can be sensed by the recipient—even by a child. When praise is insincere, it’s often ineffective and, as mentioned previously, will not work in your or your child’s favor in the long run.



2. Be Sincere


Has someone ever given you an empty compliment? It can be irritating, frustrating, and even demotivating. Researchers argue that children can and often do think about the intent of the person praising them. Do they really think this about me? Are they making this up? Do they feel sorry for me? Are they trying to tell me they want me to be or act a certain way?


If the sincerity of your praise is always in question, it will be ineffective.


Children are sensitive and smart, and they can pick up on the same cues that we recognize as adults. Children are also more likely to interpret praise as sincere when it’s coming from someone with whom they have a positive relationship. If the relationship is mired in contention or manipulation, they’re likely to sense insincerity in compliments.


Make sure that when you praise your children, you do so out of sincerity. Think about what you are going to say and why you want to say it. When praise comes from real love without ulterior motive, it can be powerful and connecting.


3. Praise Effort


Oftentimes, our praise is focused on ability, not effort. When our child finishes memorizing their piece for the piano recital, we say, “You are so talented!” instead of,“You worked so hard on that!” But who deals with failure better? The “you are so talented” child or the “you worked so hard” child?


Praising a child based on ability alone can send a message that their success (and even their worth) depends on whether or not they possess a certain talent or skill.


Children who receive praise based on ability respond more negatively to failure. It undermines the importance of effort in achievement and overemphasizes ability. When a child who is praised for their ability fails, they tend to respond with shame. Instead of focusing on what they could have done to be more successful, they often convince themselves that success is out of their reach because of their inability.


Praising a child for their effort will encourage them to focus on growth and improvement, rather than comparison and perfection.


Children who receive effort-based praise show more resilient behavior. Recognizing their hard work and clever strategies to accomplish tasks or engage in activities will teach them that success comes from effort, and that ability, in most cases, can be developed.


If you constantly praise your child for their abilities, it will quickly backfire when they encounter failure. Instead, prepare them better by praising their efforts.


4. Avoid Praise by Comparison


If you praise your children by comparing them to others, they’re likely to adopt the practice. When evaluating themselves and their abilities, they’ll look around at others to determine if they’re “good enough.” Studies have proven that this habit of social comparison is strongly linked to negative outcomes such as lack of motivation, lower self-esteem, and even learned helplessness.


If you use other children as a benchmark for your child’s success, your child will be primarily concerned with outperforming their peers rather than improving themselves.


Comparison can sneak into your praise if you aren’t careful. “You did better than your entire class!” “I love how responsible you are. Most kids your age aren’t this responsible!” “I noticed your friend Jamie didn’t make the honor roll. I wonder why she doesn’t try harder in school like you do.” These are all examples of praise by comparison.


Even though these messages are subtle, they encourage social comparison.


Kids that compare will often pass up opportunities for growth. They’ll avoid certain activities or tasks that may be challenging for them. In their minds, they should only be concerned with doing things that give them a leg up, rather than testing their own limits and reaching their own potential.


5. Don’t Overpraise


Most parents think that children can’t be praised enough, but surprisingly, research proves this idea wrong. Do you praise your child for simple tasks? Do you frequently use lengthy adverbs like “incredibly,” “amazingly,” or “perfectly?” Even when our constant applause comes from a place of love and sincerity, it can be over the top and even have negative effects on the one receiving such praise.


A pair of researchers put it this way: parents who “overvalue” their kids “overestimate, overclaim, and overpraise their children’s qualities.”


Sometimes, this kind of behavior can foster narcissism in children. Sound extreme? Then think of it as entitlement.


Children who receive inflated praise and receive it often may come to think that they are inherently better, smarter, or more capable than others. They may feel that, simply by existing, they are more deserving of success and reward. Ironically enough, some studies have found that inflated praise from parents may actually lead to lower levels of self-esteem in children.


So how can you be sure you aren’t overpraising your child?


Don’t intentionally exaggerate your praise and compliments and don’t throw a party every time your child completes a menial task. This can actually communicate to the child that they might not be capable of much else, since it’s such a big deal for them to do something small and relatively easy.


Do praise your child, but make sure it’s not forced or dramatic.


Research shows us that praise has its nuances, and it’s important for us to understand them. The way we praise, though sometimes subtle, can have a significant impact on our children. Become aware of how, why, and when you praise your child. If overcoming the subtleties is hard for you, remember that praise isn’t the only way to express your love. Explore different efforts: spend more time together, listen, laugh, and hug. You’ll soon enough learn how to express the unconditional love you have for your child in healthy, effective ways.


References

Akhouri, Kehksha, and Deoshree Akhouri. “Impact of Parent-Child Relationship on Educational Aspiration and Self-Esteem of Adolescents Boys and Girls.” Indian Journal of Health and Well-Being, vol. 9, no. 1, 2018, pp. 43–49.

Brummelman, Eddie, and Constantine Sedikides. “Raising Children With High Self‐Esteem (But Not Narcissism).” Child Development Perspectives, 2020, doi:10.1111/cdep.12362.

Brummelman, Eddie, et al. “When Parents’ Praise Inflates, Children's Self-Esteem Deflates.” Child Development, vol. 88, no. 6, 2017, pp. 1799–1809., doi:10.1111/cdev.12936.

Brummelman, Eddie, et al. “On Feeding Those Hungry for Praise: Person Praise Backfires in Children with Low Self-Esteem.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol. 143, no. 1, 2014, pp. 9–14., doi:10.1037/a0031917.

Henderlong, Jennifer, and Mark R. Lepper. “The Effects of Praise on Children's Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis.” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 128, no. 5, 2002, pp. 774–795., doi:10.1037/0033-2909.128.5.774.


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