You're a good parent, and you want to help your kids grow up to be happy and successful. So when you notice them doing something right, you jump in with praise and encouragement. But is all that praise sending the right message?
This post originally appeared on The Fine Parent.
Turns out the answer is yes and no.
You've got the first part right — as parents we are our children's first and foremost cheerleaders. Our children need to hear encouragement from us to have a healthy level of self-confidence and self-esteem.
The key however, is to understand what kind of praise is appropriate in which situation.
Think of praise as water. It is like a life force that has the power to help a little acorn grow into a huge oak tree. It has the power to keep everything green and beautiful and growing. But, it also has the power to drown, rot or just mildew everything. The key, like everything, is knowing when and how to use it correctly.
Example: The Budding Artist
Consider this sample scenario, adapted from the book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. Let's say it's one of those rare quiet weekends — for a change you have no other plans and you have the whole morning to yourselves. You ask your daughter what she wants to do, and she chooses to do some art.
Of course, just as you notice how much uninterrupted time you've had to finish up your chores and marvel at how much effort she is putting into it, she walks up to you proudly displaying her painting and asks, "Mum (or Dad), do you like my painting?"
What if she is holding up a mess and you have no clue what it is supposed to be? Let's consider some responses.
How NOT to Praise (and Why)
Response 1: Irrespective of whether it is indeed a good painting or not, you put on your best smile and cheerfully say "Wow, great job!" with the best intention of encouraging your child.
Why it's not a good choice: This kind of praise is the least effective since it only provides a momentary good feeling due to the positive attention, but does not give any clue about why it is a "great job."
If we constantly use this kind of praise without moderation (and sadly, most of us do just that!), we may actually turn our kids into praise junkies who will do anything, even a very shabby job, to get their regular fix of a quick feel-good emotion brought on by a "great job."
Here's another nasty side-effect. Sometimes I'm busy and don't have the time to give appropriate attention to what my daughter is showing me and I tend to say "great job" as a quick stand-in for real encouragement. Sadly, this makes "great job" disintegrate into a saccharine version of "go away." And like the story of the boy who cried wolf, when I do mean it as genuine praise, it ends up sending completely wrong signals.
Response 2: Let's say the painting is really good. You are very proud of your child and enthusiastically say, "That's beautiful! You are a natural artist!"
Why it's not a good choice: This kind of praise is the birthplace of the fixed mindset that we so want to avoid.
This statement contains an implicit message that natural talent is what makes someone or something great. From that, the child may extrapolate that if she is seen putting in too much effort then she won't be considered a "natural" any more. And since natural talent is what makes her special, she may not want to let go of that honour and may actually be dissuaded from putting in any effort into getting better. So whatever talent she may have gets stifled with no room to grow.
Also, this is too much of a burden to place on a child — the child now has to live up to the expectation of being a great natural artist every time she paints. Of course we don't mean it that way, but can you think of a harsher way to kill the joy of simply enjoying the creative process?
Response 3: Let's say you have no idea what the painting is about or the painting is rather grotesque. But, you want to be an encouraging parent and so you enthusiastically say, "That's beautiful! You are a natural artist!" anyway.
Why it's not a good choice: At some level our kids know when their work is sub-par. Your daughter may have tried to do something and when it didn't work out, she may have just scribbled over it in frustration. Or she may realise that her proportions are off and the painting looks no good. She comes to you for comfort. When she receives false praise, it confuses her — there is no link between the praise she is receiving and her perception of the situation.
While you may have good intentions, this does more harm than good because it undermines the child's ability to judge her own work and can even creates a sense of shame because mum/dad thinks so highly of her painting "skills" while deep down she worries that she sucks!
Now let's take this a step further. What if your child replies to you with, "I hate it. It's no good!"
Since we started out with "That's beautiful!", chances are we will continue with false praise, and the web of lies gets more and more tangled. This can confuse kids even more by devaluing their own judgement and deepening their sense of frustration/shame.
The Better Way to Praise (and Why)
Response 1: Regardless of whether it is indeed a good painting or not, pay real attention to what your child is showing you and say with a smile "You spent a lot of time working on that! What do we have here?"
Why it's a good choice: This response is very different and we have not explicitly praised anything. Yet, to our kids this matters more than any overt praise we try to provide.
Action speaks volumes — stopping what you are doing and paying real attention shows them that they matter and mum/dad cares about what they do. This lays a good foundation for healthy self-esteem as they grow up.
Your words focus on the time they spent working on the painting, something they can be proud of regardless of the end result. When the focus is on the effort, rather than the result, it lays the foundation for finding intrinsic joy in the activity rather than looking for an external source of feel-good emotions.
Response 2: Suppose it is a very good painting and you want to encourage your child by pointing it out, you could again stop what you are doing, give your child complete attention, and then say, "I see you are getting better at painting each day! I remember there was a time you could barely draw a circle and look at you now! So, what do we have here?"
Why it's a good choice: Again, as before, you are giving the child full attention and sending the signal that they are worth it.
However, here you are actually explicitly praising your child's painting. The key difference from the fixed-mindset praise earlier is that your focus is not on any innate talent, but on the amount of effort your child has been putting into it. Talent is not within anybody's control while effort is. So this kind of praise shows the child what they can do more of, if they want to get better at something that they think they are good at.
Also, by being descriptive, you let the child know in easily quantifiable terms that they have made progress. Not to mention, that mum/dad has noticed! And of course, by asking a question in the end instead of leaving it a statement, you open it up for further discussion.
Response 3: Suppose the painting bombed. Again, after you stop what you are doing, you ask your child, "You spent a lot of time working on that! What do we have here?" as before. Chances are the child will blurt out how much she tried to do something but it bombed or may lament that she sucks as painting etc.
Acknowledge her judgement — "Painting faces can be tough... Lots of artists spend years practicing how to get the proportions and expressions just right."
Perhaps offer to help her improve — "Do you want to try art classes to get better at painting faces?" Or, if she is already taking classes, "Why don't we ask Miss Jess next week for some pointers on how to paint faces?" Or, "I think there are some online videos on techniques for painting faces — do you want me to help you look it up?".
Remember, your child may take you up on the offer, or may choose to continue sulking instead. Either are perfectly fine options. If your child was frustrated with the effort and needs to vent out steam, let them.
Why it's a good choice: This is the holy grail of positive reinforcement. The key here is that we are slowly working on taking ourselves out of the equation, and letting our kids find intrinsic motivation in whatever they do. We are teaching them that they are just as talented as the work they are willing to put into it. We are teaching them that they can trust their judgement, and that it's ok for things to not always work out the way they expect. And we are showing them that their value, in our eyes, does not depend on the results they produce, but rather on who they are and the choices they make (in this case, the choice to work hard on that painting). And all the good stuff that goes into making a happy, wholesome, well-adjusted person!
The key takeaway is to focus on effort rather than results, and slowly, over time, more and more of our responses will be helpful to our children.
Sumitha Bhandarkar is the creator of afineparent.com, a unique personal development blog exclusively for parents. If you're a parent who believes that good parents are made, not born; if you believe that modelling how to live right is far more effective (and fun!) than lecturing; if you're a do-er and not just a planner; click here to join Sumitha and a small group of like-minded parents.