12 Ways to Praise Children Other Than Saying: “You're Amazing!”

Updated on January 26, 2020
letstalkabouteduc profile image

During her years as a teacher and mother, Ms. Meyers discovered that not all praise was equal and some kinds were even deleterious to kids.

Research shows that excessive praise makes kids less self-assured, less resilient, and less likely to take on challenges.
Research shows that excessive praise makes kids less self-assured, less resilient, and less likely to take on challenges. | Source

Overdoing a Good Thing

  • Sitting on a park bench while my son played in the sandbox, I watched a preschooler whoosh down the slide on his belly, head first. His proud dad yelled across the playground for all to hear: “That was freakin' amazing!”
  • Waiting in the school hallway to talk with my child's teacher, I listened as a girl showed her mother a simple charcoal drawing that she had made in class. Not pausing a moment to study the picture, her mom declared without equivocation: “You're an amazing artist!”
  • Picking up my son after play rehearsal, I overheard the director rave about the cast's performance as they exited the stage, broadcasting throughout the theater that it was “beyond amazing.”

With parents, coaches, and teachers overusing the superlative amazing, it's become a throwaway remark in our culture. Like other over-the-top expressions of praise (brilliant, awesome, extraordinary to name just a few), it no longer has any value and feels empty to kids. Moreover, it makes them question the sincerity and judgement of the grownups in their lives who utter it indiscriminately.

Today, many moms and dads feel compelled to give superfluous compliments because they hear other parents piling it on thick with their kids. They figure that a good thing such as praise can't be overdone. However, research shows otherwise.

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

Praising With Purpose

Parents believe that they're bolstering their children's self-worth by lavishing them with praise and declaring them amazing. In reality, though, they're doing quite the opposite. Research shows excessive accolades make children less confident, less resilient, and less likely to take on new challenges. Moreover, they can transform kids into praise junkies who seek on-going validation from others instead of finding it within themselves.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman write about the negative impact of parental praise in NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. After reading it, I became more mindful of my words when aiming to motivate kids, whether at home with my sons or at school with my students. Instead of making sweeping statements (you're so smart...you're doing such a fantastic job...you're so kind to everyone), I focused on the children's effort, improvement, and persistence. As a result, they tried harder, set far-reaching goals, took more risks, were open to making mistakes, and became adept at appraising their own work.

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"

How Parents Can Praise Their Children With Purpose:

—celebrate their uniqueness

—recognize their effort

—make it about them, not you

—stop labeling them

Celebrate Your Child's Uniqueness

Youngsters want nothing more than to be seen and accepted as unique beings—not better than anyone else but different than anyone else. Contrary to what some parents believe, they don't want to be compared to others even when being put head and shoulders above the crowd. With this in mind, moms and dads should refrain from making remarks such as: “No question about it, you're the prettiest girl in your class" or "You're the best player on the team and they're lucky to have you.”

These comparisons make kids think that they're being judged by what others do, not by what they do. Moreover, they send a message that their fellow students, friends, and teammates are competitors, not allies. This damages their peer relationships, making them wary of others and left feeling alone.

To celebrate their uniqueness, moms and dads should let their kids know that they are seen and accepted for their real selves, not for some amazing idealized version:

  1. Focus on making simple observations, not extravagant evaluations: "I see a happy face on the sun in your drawing" is more meaningful to kids than something over-the-top like "That's the cutest happy face sun I've ever seen!"

  2. Embrace their imperfections and humanness so they know you love them unconditionally : "You're grouchy in the morning until you get some food in you. I'm that way, too!"

  3. Stress that their differences are a plus, not a liability: "That green dress really pops with your red hair...your freckled-face makes me smile...as an introvert, you think before you speak and that makes what you say more powerful."

The ability to bounce back after disappointment and defeat is a better indicator of success in life than intelligence and talent.
The ability to bounce back after disappointment and defeat is a better indicator of success in life than intelligence and talent. | Source

Recognize Your Child's Effort

Parents who praise their children's effort bolster their resilience. According to research, youngsters who can bounce back after failure are more likely to have happy, productive lives. In fact, grit is a far more accurate indicator of future success than intelligence or talent.

Moms and dads, therefore, should focus less on outcomes and more on the process. Most parents, for example, comment on their child's homework only when it's done: "Wow, it likes neat and tidy. Good job!" Those, who wish to have a more far-reaching impact, though, remark while their kid are still doing it: "You're really spending a lot of time on that assignment without any distractions. I can see that turning off your phone and taking off your headphones is really helping you concentrate and muscle through it."

To encourage effort over outcome, moms and dad should do the following:

4. Recognize hard work: "I see the effort you're putting into writing that essay. Using that thesaurus will really expand your vocabulary and make your writing more descriptive."

5. Connect improvement with effort: "You've really improved at the free throw line this season this season. Your daily practice has paid off in a big way!"

6. Celebrate learning, not awards and achievements: "You worked on that science fair project for days and learned a whole lot about photosynthesis" has a far-reaching impact as compared to "I'm so proud of your blue ribbon in the science fair."

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"

Make It About Your Child, Not You

Many moms and dads see their children as extensions of themselves. They claim their kids' achievements as their own and perceive their failings as a personal affront. It takes confident, self-aware parents to view their children as completely separate human beings from them.

To accomplish this, moms and dads need to take their egos out of the equation and put the emphasis on their kids:

7. Zero-in on their feelings: Instead of “I'm so proud of you,” say “You should feel good about what you achieved.”

8. Ask about their learning, not their grades: "What's most fascinating to you about biology?" is far more motivating than "what grade did you get on your biology final?"

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

Youngsters question the sincerity and judgement of adults who lavish them with accolades.
Youngsters question the sincerity and judgement of adults who lavish them with accolades. | Source

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

Stop Labeling Your Child

Busy parents take a potentionally destructive shortcut by slapping a label on everything their children do, whether it's amazing, perfect, beautiful, awesome, superb, genius, or sensational. As a result, some kids get addicted to such accolades and, therefore, become praise junkies. For them, doing the task at hand, whether it's painting a picture or playing baseball, is never as pleasurable as hearing the kudos when they're done.

To avoid turning their youngsters into praise junkies, parents should do the following:

10. Empower them: When they ask, "how did I do in the soccer game?" don't answer. Instead, get them to analyze their own performance by asking, "How do you think you did? What were your strengths and weaknesses?"

11. Keep in mind that less is more. Today, many employers gripe that young workers require too much praise, too much hand-holding, and too much reassurance that they're doing well on the job. Therefore, it's essential that moms and don't overload their kids with compliments, setting them up for struggles in the real world.

12. 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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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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    • Aimeeyoung11 profile image

      Aimee Young 

      11 months ago from Los Angeles

      Beauitful content. Interesting to read, thx fo sharing.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 

      2 years 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 

      2 years ago

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

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      2 years ago

      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 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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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