27 More Effective Ways to Praise Your Child Other Than “You're Amazing!”

Updated on September 5, 2018
letstalkabouteduc profile image

I'm a credentialed teacher with a master's degree in special education. I spent many years teaching preschool and kindergarten.

Children don't appreciate over-the-top praise.
Children don't appreciate over-the-top praise. | Source

I think the self-esteem gurus led us to believe we could hand our children self-esteem on a silver platter through our praise, through our words. And we thought...almost the definition of being a good parent was to keep handing self-esteem to our child. But it doesn't work that way."

— Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University

Don't Overdo a Good Thing

While sitting on the bench at the park, I watched a preschooler whoosh down the slide on his belly, head first. His dad yelled across the playground to him: “That was freakin' amazing!” While waiting for my son after school, I saw a student show her mother a charcoal drawing. Without equivocation, Mom announced: “You're an amazing artist!” While picking up my son after play practice, I listened as the director raved that each child's performance was “beyond amazing!”

It's little wonder I see the superlative amazing as a throw-away word—over-the-top praise so overused that it means absolutely nothing. Moms and dads feel pressured to say it. They hear other parents piling on the compliments with their children and feel obliged to do the same and even more. After all, you can't overdo a good thing, right?

Praise With a Purpose

WRONG! While parents aim to build a youngster's self-esteem by proclaiming them amazing, they're really doing the opposite. That's because research shows excessive praise actually hurts children—making them less confident, less resilient, and less likely to take on new challenges. It can transform them into praise junkies, craving constant validation from others to feel good about themselves. Parents should stop labeling their kids amazing and other such superlatives. Instead they should offer praise with a purpose—words that promote self-worth, initiative, and independence.

While parents who praise their children have all the right intentions, the underlying result from the praise is a child who begins to need, crave and even depend on praise for their motivation, and the “praise junkie” habit is formed. The praise junkie is a person (kid or grown up) who needs consistent affirmation from others to feel confident in his or her own ability or choices..As kids get older, the praise junkie will turn to the peer group for approval, which is not what most parents want.

— Amy McCready, Founder of "Positive Parenting Solutions"

Celebrate Your Child's Uniqueness

There's nothing a youngster wants more than to be seen and accepted as an individual—not better than anyone else but different. She doesn't like getting compared to others, even when mom and dad place her head and shoulders above the crowd: “No question about it, you're the prettiest girl in your class...You're the best player on the team and they're lucky to have you.”

These comparisons give the message that she's getting judged based on what others are doing and not getting accepted on her own merits. She may start to view peers as rivals, not friends. Here are ways to celebrate a child's uniqueness and make her feel seen:

  1. Comment on what makes her special, using observations and not evaluations: I see a happy face on this sun in your drawing...I see how you use lots of adjectives in your writing...I see how you listen to music on your iPod to relax before a swim meet.

  2. Reassure her she doesn't have to think like you do: We certainly don't agree on that politician's agenda. I'm glad we can hold different opinions and discuss them...That's my favorite movie of all time, but you find it too sappy."

  3. Make it clear you love her for herself: You're the only you in the entire world and I'm so lucky to have you in my life.

  4. Stress that her differences make her special: That green dress really looks beautiful with your red hair.

  5. Show acceptance: I love you just as you are!

  6. Acknowledge her uniqueness as an asset: Your voice really comes through in that essay...You always have a distinct opinion that gets me thinking.

When parents praise effort, they encourage a child to keep moving forward.
When parents praise effort, they encourage a child to keep moving forward. | Source

Acknowledge Your Child's Effort

When parents praise their children's effort, it builds resilience, which research shows contributes greatly to success in life. Parents should focus less on the end product: “Your painting is gorgeous,” and more on the process: “You spent a lot of time and showed great patience as you worked on that painting.” Here are some ways to promote a youngster's grit:

7. Recognize hard work: I can see the effort you put into writing this essay. It really shows.

8. Connect improvement with effort: Your free throws have gotten so much better this season. Your practice has paid off in a big way!

9. Acknowledge an attempt, even when unsuccessful: I'm glad you tried to clean the hamster cage by yourself even if it got a little messy.

10. Speak about the journey: Last year you hated to write poetry and now you really love it...Remember how long division gave you headaches in fourth grade and now it's just a breeze!

11. Notice the amount of time put into the task: You've applied for a lot of part-time jobs. That's taken a lot of hours.

12. Celebrate the effort, not the success: You worked on that science fair project for days. Your hard work is what counts, not whether you received an award.

13. Encourage them while they're working, not only when they're done: You're so focused on the task at hand...You really have your head in the game today...You're really going to town on cleaning your room.

We should especially recognize our children's efforts to push themselves and work hard to achieve a goal. One thing to remember is that it's the process not the end product that matters.

— Dr. Paul J. Donahue, clinical psychologist and author of "Parenting Without Fear"
When you recognize a child's hard work, it motivates her to take on new challenges.
When you recognize a child's hard work, it motivates her to take on new challenges. | Source

Make It About Your Child, Not You

Many parents fall into the trap of seeing their children as extensions of themselves. They celebrate their kids' achievements as their own and their failures as reflecting poorly on them. It takes a confident and self-aware parent to see her child as a separate and unique person. This kind of parent praises her child to foster growth, not just to show enthusiasm for achievement. Here's some ways to make it about your kid, not you:

14. Focus on her feelings: Instead of saying the all-too-common, “I'm proud of you,” make it about her: “You should feel good about what you achieved.”

15. Ask a question: How's it going? How did you feel about that project? How do you think you did?

16. Ask about the work itself: What are you learning in that class? What's that project supposed to teach you? Why do you think the teacher wants you to write about that?

17. Celebrate her strengths: Creative writing comes so naturally to you. It doesn't for many people...You're so comfortable with technology. You really know your way around a computer.

18. Promote self-care: You've been working on that project for hours. Why don't you take a bike ride?

Young children are unlikely to have their self-esteem strengthened from excessive praise or flattery. On the contrary, it may raise some doubts in children; many children can see through flattery and may even dismiss an adult who heaps on praise as a poor source of support-one who is not very believable.

— Dr. Lilian Katz, professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois

Drop the Labels and Get Real With Your Child

Parents get tempted to slap a judgment on everything their child does. In addition to the ubiquitous amazing, other popular superlatives include: perfect, awesome, superb, brilliant, and sensational. Some children even become addicted to this flattery, evolving into praise junkies who need another compliment to feed their fix. The task at hand becomes meaningless to them because what they crave are the kudos when they're done.

Girls are at a high risk to become praise junkies about their looks. According to Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, the focus on their appearance gives girls the wrong message. They become convinced beauty is the key to happiness and success, not intelligence and hard work. Here are some ways to commend children without turning them into praise junkies:

19. Let them approve of their work: When your child asks, “Mommy, do you like my painting?” turn it around and say, “What do you like about it?”

20. Get specific: Instead of saying, “You're always so nice,” say “I saw how you asked the new boy to play with you in the sandbox.”

21. Keep in mind less is more: Employers today gripe that young workers need too much praise, too much hand-holding, and too much guidance. Don't overload your child with too many compliments now, setting her up for disappointment in the real world.

22. Be genuine: Even a little kid can tell when mom and dad are going overboard with the praise. This makes a youngster doubt her parents' judgment and sincerity.

23. Describe the behavior: You took out the garbage without me asking...You filled up the gas tank after borrowing my car...You stacked those blocks so high!

24. Promote initiative and independence: Do you want to clean your room after school or tomorrow morning?... Do you want to take pottery, soccer, or go to science camp?... You make that decision. I trust your judgment.

25. Show appreciation: Thanks for looking out after your little brother while I was on the phone...You are so responsible with your homework that I never need to worry.

26. Show empathy: I know how difficult it is to learn a second language. When I was in high school, it took me hours and hours to learn the German vocabulary words...Volleyball isn't for everyone. When I was your age, I could never serve the ball over the net.

27. Give unconditional love: Kids don't need a steady stream of superlatives to feel good about themselves. But they do need you to love them for who they are.

This Book Shows You How to Make Praise Meaningful and Parenting Easier

Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting: The Revolutionary Programme That Transforms Family Life
Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting: The Revolutionary Programme That Transforms Family Life

As busy parents, we often go for the quick and easy answers and that's why the superlative amazing gets so overused. This book helped me become a more thoughtful mom – not just surviving each day with the kids but keeping in mind my long-range goal of turning them into happy, confident, and responsible adults. The chapter on descriptive praise helped me realize that my compliments were meaningless and not at all motivating. When I began to notice and mention positive behaviors, my boys did them more often. It was a simple change that made a huge difference in our daily lives.

 

Questions & Answers

  • My child's preschool teachers are always giving the kids compliments on their clothes and how they look. What should I do?

    I admire you for seeing this as a problem and your willingness to do something about it. I know many parents who see nothing wrong with praise being lavished on their children. In fact, they eat it up as it strokes their own egos.

    They're unaware of the research that shows too many compliments make kids overly dependent on adult approval. Children lose the ability to evaluate their work and need moms and dads to tell them whether it's good or bad. They lose the intrinsic motivation that's so necessary to succeed in life, feel fulfilled, and be happy. They're always looking for validation from the outside, not the inside.

    Since some preschool teachers are unaware that too many compliments create “praise junkies,” I would privately and respectfully bring this to their attention. You could mention that you read an article about it in a parenting magazine and grew concerned. You could elicit their opinion on the matter, so they don't get defensive.

    When my son attended a co-op preschool, we had a parent meeting on the issue of praise junkies. Since moms and dads helped in the classroom, we decided to develop guidelines for giving constructive comments rather than mere kudos. It got us thinking about how to encourage children in a meaningful way instead of giving fast, easy, and mindless compliments: You look so cute today...your painting is so amazing...your block city is so cool.

    We learned (with time and practice) to ask questions that got the kids thinking: Why did you decide to wear that dress today? What did you feel when you made that painting? How did you build that block city so tall? It was amazing to see how the adult-child conversations at preschool evolved and became more exciting and fun.

  • If you have a child that has artwork on display, what do you say in the comments?

    Too many parents make a quick judgment of their child's art without even looking at it closely: "That's amazing...that's gorgeous...that's the best you've ever done." Those over-the-top comments don't fool kids, even little ones. It means so much more if parents take the time to look at the art closely.

    It's always fantastic to ask the child questions such as: "What were you feeling when you painted that? What message are you giving with that drawing? How do you want other people to feel when they look at it?"

    It's also wonderful to compliment specific details you see in the artwork: "I like how you blended the purple and blue in the sky...I see how you used the side of your crayon to make the background...It looks like you spent a lot of time making the flowers." Because the process of making art is more important than the finished product, I like to talk with the child about how she felt while making it. Was she relaxed, excited, happy?

© 2017 McKenna Meyers

Comments

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    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 

      12 months ago from Orlando Florida

      This is such an amazing essay. Just kidding. I meant to say this is such a useful essay packed with good advice. I wish I had read it when my son was growing up. But your advice is appropriate for praising anyone of whatever age.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      19 months ago from Bend, OR

      I never turn down a compliment, Bill, especially when it comes from someone I respect.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      19 months ago from Bend, OR

      I know what you mean, Kylyssa. When someone is over-the-top with their praise, it makes me uncomfortable. It feels phony and condescending. Being specific makes all the difference -- to kids and adults.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      19 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Wonderfully uplifting and positive message...it is okay if I say you are amazing for writing this? :)

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 

      19 months ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      This is the way to compliment anyone! Before I read this, I had no idea why I hated getting certain sorts of compliments. When people tell me I'm brave or amazing, I want to crawl into a hole. When people say something specific and positive about something I've done or made, I'm OK with that.

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