How to Give Meaningful Praise
“Great job!” “Way to go!” “Nice work!” “You are perfect!” “That is the most beautiful picture!” “You’re so smart!” “You’re so beautiful!” As parents, we want our children to feel good about themselves so we try to give them as much praise as we can, but are we overdoing it? How much is too much?
We are all guilty of using this kind of generic, generalized praise at some point in our lives, but it turns out that when praise like this is used repeatedly, it can begin to feel meaningless and empty. This kind of praise also doesn’t tell children exactly what they did well, and without that information, they don’t know what they need to do in the future to get the same outcome.
Stanford University Researcher, Carol Dweck, has shown that generalized praise of this kind can create learners with a “fixed mindset.” These children are fearful of making mistakes, unlikely to put in the necessary effort, and unwilling to really practice because they have a set view of how smart they are. Children who are praised for being smart tend to fixate on performance and generally avoid taking risks due to the possibility of failure.
According to Dweck, praise that helps children see that their success is a function of effort or practice develop a ”growth mindset.” Children with this mindset believe that their intelligence can increase through hard work, and they value learning over performance. Children praised for their efforts generally try harder and persist with tasks longer.
While it may seem like praising your child is part of your role as a loving parent, doing so excessively not only devalues the praise, but it also prevents your child from truly knowing what doing a “good job” means. Praise is about acknowledging the child’s effort, rather than confirmation that the child has met an adult expectation. Try limiting general praise and provide children with specific feedback instead. How you praise your children has a powerful influence on their development.
Tips for providing meaningful praise:
- Praise effort: “I can tell that you are working hard to complete the puzzle.” Praise your child’s efforts in order to teach them that ability can improve with practice. By focusing on the child’s efforts, you can help build their self-esteem and foster resilience. Praise is an essential confidence boosting part of the learning process. A genuine and positive response to a child’s effort helps to build the child’s confidence. Praising children’s efforts can motivate them to work hard, explore, learn and have a healthy outlook on their abilities.
- Praise the strategy: “I see how carefully you are building that tower.” All praise should be specific and genuine. Rather than saying, “Good job,” or “You’re so smart,” try commenting on the process instead of the individual.
- Praise with specifics: Say what you see, by providing a judgment free statement like, “You used a lot of different materials to make your picture,” or “I noticed you put away your blocks without being asked.” Using specific praise teaches children that they are in control of what they can accomplish.
- Be Honest: Don’t say that something is great when it is not. Comment on the process, effort, creative strategies used, or ask questions to engage the child. Children can sense when you adults are being genuine.
- Focus on mastering skills: Encourage kids to focus on mastering skills, not on comparing themselves to others.
- Observe and comment: “You put your shoes on by yourself!” “You climbed that ladder all by yourself!” These comments acknowledge effort and encourage children to take pride in their accomplishments.
- Don’t brag! Bragging to other parents about how smart and talented your child is can not only be annoying, but it also puts a lot of pressure on your child to perform.
As educators and parents, we can help children develop the tools they need to maintain their confidence while learning, by keeping them focused on the process of achievement. Useful feedback and genuine, specific praise is critical to motivating and inspiring children to grow.
Written by Jamie Decker, LCPC, JCC Chicago Early Childhood Social Services