So I don’t know if you know this but studies have shown that you shouldn’t praise your kids. I don’t know, I mean I’m careful about how I do it, so just in case these studies are correct, I’m not ruining my childrens personality somehow. But something else feels wrong about someone telling me I shouldn’t praise my kid. In relating to the real world, adults praise each other all the time, we support & compliment each other all the time, adleast in my world. The other day, I took my kids roller skating for the first time and I just let it out, because I couldn’t hold it back. I told my daughter “ Lucia, your so cool, look at you! I don’t see any other 3 year olds out here! Your doing it! Your so determined! Go Lucia, Go!” and all of a sudden, I felt like I was being a bad mom because you have to be careful about how your praise. But it feels SO GOOD to compliment my daughter. So I needed to review the rules exactly.
Supposedly these one time events in and of themselves are not individually harmful, and are sometimes perfectly appropriate, the practice of continually praising or over-praising a child supposedly can be. The problem with praise is that children begin to expect constant acknowledgement and conversely are alarmed when they don’t get it. I have to admit, my daughter complains if she doesn’t get feedback. But I guess there is a difference, and I like feedback too.
In a long term study, to be published in the journal Child Development, they videotaped diverse group of over 50 toddlers interacting with their parents at the ages of one, two, and three. Five years later, the children who were praised more for what they did than who they were ended up being more equipped to take on challenges. This was measured as a composite of their responses to different hypotheticals: Overall, they were more likely to believe in the ability of individuals to learn and become more intelligent, and in people’s ability to grow and evolve in general. They were also able to come up with more strategies for dealing with setbacks, and indicated that they welcomed challenges over simple tasks.
They come to rely on external praise rather than develop internal motivation or confidence in their emerging abilities. They stop doing things because they should or they can, and instead do them for the recognition.
Further, according to Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a professor at Columbia University, children who come to rely on praise take fewer risks, because they are unwilling to lose their praise-worthy status. When children seek praise (consciously or unconsciously) they tend to avoid anything they won’t get ‘right’: which is unfortunate because mistakes, trial and error, and risk-taking are critical elements of any learning process. But then I think, isn’t risk taking and motivation a aspect of personality? Do I really have that much power over my child’s personality?
They say as children age, if they only define themselves by good grades, winning, or anytime they receive praise, they’ll feel less competent or worthy when these things are absent (i.e. the real world). My parents didn’t praise me much, if I got a B, he would say why didn’t you get a A on test. Some would call me over motivated, but it didn’t occur until I got into the adult world where I did actually start getting praise from co-workers, customers & friends. Even then, I don’t really believe that my motivation has much to do with praise or lack there of.
As an alternative to praising a child’s end result or the child themselves, we should offer encouragement for their efforts and attitudes. Encouragement can be inspirational and motivating – a gentle, supportive nudge that helps children meet important goals – instead of self-defining and limiting.
And when we do praise children, it should be genuine: praise that is specific (i.e. “That was very kind of you to clean up your toys without being reminded”) rather than generic (i.e. “You are wonderful”) and praise focused on behavior (i.e. “You came up with a very creative solution”) rather than the person (i.e. “You are so smart”).
In Dr. Dweck’s study, children who received encouragement were more likely to believe their intelligence could change and they could do better if they tried hard, whereas children who were praised felt their intelligence was fixed and were already, even in the toddler years, avoiding experiences perceived to be challenging.
Here are a few concrete examples of praise versus encouragement
- Recognizes and fosters continual growth and effort.
- Does not cause children to compare their achievements, or compete about who is smarter, prettier, faster, etc.
- Fosters independence – children gain a sense that their own abilities can get them what they need and want.
- Emphasizes effort, progress, and improvement rather than just results.
- Recognizes contribution rather than completion or quality over quantity.
- Promotes perseverance rather than giving up if a child doesn’t initially achieve the success he expected.
- Allows children to learn about, rather than measure, themselves.
- Prepares children for real-world challenges where they will be expected to do much more than show up to earn recognition.
- Doesn’t build false self-esteem (i.e. “I am so smart. I can do anything”) but instead builds determination and confidence (i.e. “I have the ability to do many things if I work hard”).
- Does not do for children what they can do for themselves.
Children who receive encouragement or genuine praise are also more resilient. Because they are focused on their effort and believe they can change their circumstances through determination or learning, they are not as shaken by adversity.
Children who receive stickers or a high fives for doing mundane tasks like putting their shoes on, begin to expect praise when praise isn’t called for and take it personally when it doesn’t come (which will inevitably happen as they age); the praise becomes more important than the achievement. So balance is key, that’s all.
Of course, it is okay to express pride in your child; it is a natural way to demonstrate love and support. But it is important to understand that if self-confidence and development are the goals, encouragement is a much more useful strategy. After all, when our children are on their own and faced with a challenge, we know it won’t help them to think, “Why can’t I do this? I should be smart enough.” but it will serve them well to think, “This is tough, but with effort I can probably figure it out.” It’s true, if we really have that much of an impact on their self worth.
Praising effort can be a powerful tool in shaping children’s behavior. Who doesn’t want to be acknowledged for their effort? Even adults look for acknowledgment from their bosses, spouses, and friends. Children are no different. They look to us as parents to acknowledge their attempts. I guess we need to just be careful about our wording praising the effort not the outcome. Honestly, if my daughters do something that I think is awesome, I’m going to tell them they are awesome, I just won’t throw out compliments for no reason. Of course. I take a holistic approach and throw dogmatic theories out the door. Every child is different, and every child has different needs. What do you think?