What’s the right way to praise kids?
Good answers come from Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark Lepper,
psychologists who have analyzed over 30 years of studies on the effects of
praise They determined that praise can be a powerful motivating force if you follow these guidelines:
• Be sincere and specific with your praise
• Praise kids only for traits they have the power to change
• Use descriptive praise that conveys realistic, attainable standards
• Be careful about praising kids for achievements that come easily
• Be careful about praising kids for doing what they already love to do
• Encourage kids to focus on mastering skills, not on comparing themselves to others
In addition, it’s important to be sensitive to your child’s developmental level.
Be sensitive to your child’s developmental level
Very young children thrive on praise
Older kids are more sophisticated and may interpret your praise in negative ways
Whereas very young children are likely to take your praise at face value, older kids are a different story. As kids mature, they become aware of your own possible motives for praising them. If they perceive you to be insincere, they may dismiss your praise. They may also be sensitive to being patronized or manipulated.
Be sincere and specific
Insincere praise may harm self-esteem and damage relationships
Obviously, kids won’t feel very encouraged by praise if you seem insincere.
But insincere praise isn’t just ineffective. It can be damaging.
Kids might think you feel sorry for them or that you are trying to be manipulative. Insincere praise might also send the message that you don’t really understand your child (Henderlong and Lepper 2002).
To prevent the appearance of insincerity, avoid frequent, effusive praise.
And avoid praise that is sweeping or general. Kids are more likely to doubt it.
Praise kids for traits they have the power to change. It might seem that praising your child’s intelligence or talent would boost his self-esteem and motivate him.
But it turns out that this sort of praise backfires.
Carol Dweck and her colleagues have demonstrated the effect in a series of
experimental studies: When we praise kids for their ability, kids become more
cautious. They avoid challenges.
It’s as if they are afraid to do anything that might make them fail and lose
your high appraisal.
Kids might also get the message that intelligence or talent is something that
people either have or don’t have. This leaves kids feeling helpless when they
make mistakes. What’s the point of trying to improve if your mistakes indicate
that you lack intelligence?
For these reasons, it’s better to avoid praising kids for ability. Instead, praise them for things that they can clearly change—like their level of effort or the strategies they use. For more information on the effects of praise on intellectual performance, click
Use descriptive praise that conveys realistic, attainable standards. Some praise is merely about making a judgment “Good job!” Other praise provides information about what the recipient did right: “I like the way you begin your essay by describing the problem and explaining why it’s important.”
The latter is called descriptive praise, and it is thought to be more helpful than general praise. When you give a child descriptive praise, you don’t just tell him he’s doing well. You give him specific feedback, and you tell him something about your standards.
But there is an important caveat, argue Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark
Lepper (2002). The standards you convey should be reasonable. If you
over-praise a child (e.g. “You’re amazing! I’ve never heard anyone play the
piano better!”), you may send the wrong message. Your child might conclude that
your standards are superhuman. How can he possibly live up to that? Praise that
conveys unrealistically high standards can become a source of pressure, and make
kids feel inadequate.
Beware of praising kids for achievements that come easily If you praise kids for easy tasks, kids may conclude there is something wrong: Either you’re too dumb to realize how easy the task is, or you think the kids are dumb (Meyer 1992).
Such interpretations are unlikely to occur to younger children. But as kids
mature, they become more sophisticated about the social meaning of praise.
One experiment presented American kids (aged 4 to 12 years) with a videotaped
scenario depicting students at work. The scenario showed two students solving a
problem. Each performed equally well, but only one student was praised.
The kids who watched the program were asked to judge the students’ effort and
Kids of all ages agreed that the praised student tried harder. But the older
kids also inferred that the praised student had lower ability (Barker and Graham
Beware of over-praising kids for doing things they like anyway
It’s okay to praise kids for doing what they like to do. But be careful not
to go overboard—particularly with older kids. When you praise kids every time
they do something they enjoy, it might actually reduce their motivation (Henderlong and Lepper 2002).
For example, suppose that Adam loves to eat broccoli. But every time he eats
broccoli, his mom praises him for it. Consciously or unconsciously, Adam starts
to question his motivation. Is he eating broccoli only for the praise? Adam changes his attitude toward broccoli-eating. It’s a chore, not a pleasure. If the praise ends, Adam loses interest in eating broccoli.
In the end, the important thing is that we are connecting with our children in ways that fit their unique personalities. If we have that connection individually, we are the best ones to know what works most effectively for them. My personal philosophy is to just be consistent and never withhold praise to punish your child. We must always be available to them physically and psychologically. We are their best line of defense for developing their strong self esteem and character. Every parent wants their child to grow up loving themselves so they can share that love with the world.