Thursday, February 3, 2011

How (Not) to Praise Your Kids

This post is dedicated to Ava Josephine Jerrick, who passed away one month ago today. Ava, I know your Mama would be praising the heck out of you if you were here right now.

I hesitate to ever say there's a "right" or wrong" way to parent. But there has been research in the last few years on, of all things, how to praise your children.

One would think that praising your children is good and not praising them is bad. Period.



According to psychologists, when you praise your child, you're supposed to focus on his effort, rather than on his accomplishments. This seems counter-intuitive. After all, if your child scored three goals in the soccer match or got an A on his essay, shouldn't you focus on how well he did?

Apparently, you shouldn't. Instead, focus on how much he practiced and how hard he played, or how much time he spent in the library researching that essay even though you know he'd rather have been doing something else.

Why is this so crucial? For several reasons.

First of all, your child can't always control how well he's going to do something. For example, some kids are just uncoordinated. They're not going to score that many goals in a soccer match, if they score any at all. (Whether uncoordinated children should be playing soccer is another question. Personally, if they enjoy it I think they should go for it. Only if they feel discouraged and out of place should they be encouraged to find an activity that is more suited to their abilities).

If you focus on the quantity of your child's achievements, i.e. number of goals or grade on an essay, you're focusing on his ability or skill level. Granted, sometimes kids can improve by practicing harder or studying more. But sometimes that B or C really is the best they can do. They shouldn't feel bad for doing their best! They should be praised for how hard they tried, not for the outcome.

Secondly, it's hard to believe, but praise for your child's accomplishments can actually have negative effects. If your child sees that what's important to you is how well he does, this can affect not only how hard he tries but also his self-esteem and in fact his entire outlook on how the world works. If he thinks the only thing that matters is skill level - coordination, intelligence, artistic ability, or any other - he might decide there's no point in trying to do something that could be a great experience or a crucial part of his development because he just doesn't believe he has the skills to succeed. For example, if you're always praising him when he gets As on his English homework and he comes home with a C in math, he may well decide "I'm no good at math so I might as well not waste my time. I'll just focus on the subjects I'm good at." This will become a self-fulfilling prophecy: if he doesn't make an effort to study math, he will in fact fail at it, which will only reinforce his attitude. On the other hand, if you praise him when he studies hard, no matter what the end result, he'll get the message that the most important thing is effort. This way he'll continue to work hard and may just get a B or even an A the next time. So in effect, praising him only on his accomplishments may actually end up sabotaging him.

Praising our children for their efforts is crucial not only to our kids' self-esteem but to teaching them that in order to succeed in life they need to try hard and can't give up.

My kids are young, but I have to try to catch myself and not only praise four-year-old Eliana when she draws a picture that actually looks like a person or a rainbow, but also when she draws a picture that I can't recognize (and don't even know which end is up). After all, she spends a long time on her drawings and she is working on valuable skills like patience, concentration, and fine motor development, no matter what she's drawing. The other day she tried to write "Mommy" for the first time. She started with a "W." The first thing I did was say "Wow, Eliana, that's amazing! I can't believe you did that all by yourself." (The second thing I did was teach her the difference between a "W" and an "M.")

But I guess I should have said something like "I'm so proud of you for working on your writing! You're trying really hard," rather than the more specific "You're writing really beautifully." I'm not exactly sure how this whole thing works, but I'm going to try to be more conscious of it in the future.

Praising our kids for their efforts rather than their accomplishments is a really difficult rule to remember. But no one ever said parenting was easy.


  1. Never praise a child too much on his/her abilities for they are the ones who easily feel like failures when they don't succeeed. Praising ones effort indeed is a better way to encourage them.

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