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Using Praise Effectively

As parents we want to do everything we possibly can to support our children. We all want to send our child into the world prepared to thrive and take full advantage of what life has to offer. That’s what parenting is all about. Of course, we all know raising children is not that simple either. Too much of a good thing may not be helpful. Take praise for example.

You might think the more the better. Lavishing the little ones with positive feedback for the smallest achievements could only build self-confidence and personal capacity.

Actually, not so. It’s important for parents to understand that some types of praise are better than others. Let’s check in with the experts to see what they say.

Dr. Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford, writes, “Praising a smart son or daughter for his or her intelligence may make the youngster anxious and ill-equipped to deal with failure. It is much better to praise a child for effort. When children are taught the value of concentrating, strategizing and working hard when dealing with academic challenges, this praise for effort encourages them to sustain their motivation and performance.” 1

We praise children to let them know they are worthy, to raise their self-esteem, but too much praise, or praising intelligence or ability, may not produce the effect we want.

Jenny Anderson writes in her New York Times column Motherlode “In Dweck’s previous research, she’s showed that praising children for their intelligence or abilities often undermines motivation and hurts performance. Kids who are told they are smart care more about performance goals and less about learning. Kids praised for their efforts believe that trying hard, not being smart, matters. These kids are “resilient” and take more risks.”2

A study of over 400 fifth graders showed that when children were praised for their ability, rather than their effort, they may be less motivated to attempt assignments that were more challenging or that they might fail on. When choosing a task to work on, those who were praised for their effort and persistence picked assignments that they could learn something from, while those praised for intelligence liked those tasks on which they could easily succeed. In other words, getting kudos for being smart makes you worry about maintaining the appearance of smartness, while appreciation for trying your best gives you the freedom to take risks without as much worry about failure. 3

So, now we know to emphasize effort over personal qualities such as intelligence. Another important strategy is to focus on describing, rather than evaluating, what your child has accomplished. When the child hears you describe in detail exactly what she did, then she is likely to recognize the truth and credit herself. For example, “ I see you are all ready to go to the store. You picked up your toys, put on your jacket, and even turned off the light in the bathroom.” Then, hearing the accomplishment described, the child praises himself. “I know how to plan ahead and be responsible.” Praise itself implies judgment—perhaps a better way is to note the behavior—let the child decide if it is praiseworthy.

These two approaches to offering praise to your child, focus on effort and describe rather than judge, take more time and require constant self-reminders. It’s tempting to blurt out, “What a strong girl you are, lifting that package all by yourself!” or, “I knew a smart boy like you would get the right answer.” No harm will be done by such isolated exclamations. Rather, it’s the long-term, sustained pattern of misplaced emphasis on the wrong kind of praise that can cause unintended results in your child.


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