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How to Effectively Praise Your Child (Hint: "You're Amazing!" Is Harmful)

When complimenting their children, parents should focus on effort, improvement, and persistence.

When complimenting their children, parents should focus on effort, improvement, and persistence.

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 judgment 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're doing such a fantastic'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"

Celebrate Their 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 the 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:

  • Make simple observations, not extravagant evaluations: "I see how you blended the greens and the blues when making the ocean" is more meaningful to kids when looking at their art than something over-the-top like "The ocean looks awesome!"
  • Embrace their imperfections and humanness so they know that you love them unconditionally: "You're grouchy in the morning until you get some food in you. I'm that way, too!"
  • Emphasize that their differences are a plus, not a liability: "That green dress really pops with your red hair...your freckled-face makes me an introvert, you think before you speak and that makes what you say more powerful."
When parents praise effort, not outcome, they bolster their child's resilience.

When parents praise effort, not outcome, they bolster their child's resilience.

Recognize Their Effort

Parents who praise their children's effort and persistence 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 far-reaching impact, though, comment while their kid are doing it: "You're really spending a lot of time on that assignment without any distractions. I can see that turning off your phone is really helping you concentrate and muscle through it."

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

  • Recognize hard work: "I see the time and thought that you're putting into writing that essay. Using that thesaurus will really expand your vocabulary and make your writing more descriptive."
  • Connect improvement with effort: "Your free throw percentage is much higher this season.Your daily practice has paid off in a big way."
  • Celebrate learning, not awards and achievements: "You worked on that science fair project for days and learned a whole lot about photosynthesis" is far more significant in the long-haul compared to "I'm so proud that you got a blue ribbon at 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 Them, 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:

  • Zero-in on their feelings, not yours: Instead of “I'm so proud of you,” say “You should feel good about what you achieved.”
  • Ask about their learning, not their grades: "What's most fascinating to you about biology?" is more motivating than "What grade did you get on your biology final?"
  • Promote self-care: "You've been working on that project for hours. Why don't you get outside and 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

Don't Label Them

Busy parents take a potentially 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 become praise junkies. For these children, 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:

If Not Excessive Praise, Then What?

Parents are more likely to tamp down on giving excessive accolades when they accept one simple fact: it can’t give their children self-esteem. It’s not that easy and youngsters must earn self-worth on their own. They do so by becoming proud of themselves by working hard work, being persistent, and taking on new challenges. Moms and dads, though, can lend a helping hand by providing their kids with opportunities that promote discipline, grit, and risk-taking. Here are a few things that experts recommend parents do.

Give Them Chores

Kids develop self-assurance when they’re given responsibilities around the house. They develop pride in their living space when taking care of their bedrooms by vacuuming, dusting, making the bed, and taking out the garbage. They feel significant when they do jobs that benefit the family: setting the table for dinner, walking the dog, and cleaning the bathroom.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Dean of Freshman at Stanford University and author of How to Raise an Adult, says that assigning chores to kids gives them a sense of purpose and belonging. She argues that it benefits youngsters far into the future as they build their careers. By doing chores, Lythcott-Haims says that kids discover that "it’s not just about me and what I need in this moment, but that I’m a part of an ecosystem. I’m part of a family. I’m part of a workplace."

Have Them Volunteer

Kids develop self-esteem by helping others and by being part of something bigger than themselves. Little ones can pick up trash in their neighborhoods and nearby parks. They can make cards for seniors and cookies for the homeless shelter. Older kids can give their time at the humane society, a soup kitchen, a retirement home, or Habitat for Humanity.

Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Civic Learning at Tufts University, says that youngsters who volunteer are more successful in life. They perform better in school and are more likely to graduate from high school and college. Their self-esteem is bolstered by volunteering because it empowers them. They learn at a young age that they can make a difference by supporting causes that they’re passionate about, whether it’s climate change, civil rights, or animal advocacy.

In this helpful video, parents learn how to use "descriptive praise" instead of over-the-top accolades to motivate their youngsters.

Help Them Establish a Self-Care Routine

Kids become more confident and empowered when they prioritize their mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health. Just like making certain that teeth get brushed and vegetables get eaten, parents should ensure that their kids take good care of their overall well-being. They should encourage a routine that includes activities such as exercising, meditating, doing yoga, spending time in nature, writing in a journal, preparing healthy foods, limiting technology, reading, and socializing with friends and family.

Dr. Peter Gray is a champion of unstructured play and the author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. He argues that kids gain confidence when they have time for unstructured play. This means that they’re interacting with other kids, making up their own games, and following their own rules. This is in sharp contrast to participation in adult-led activities such as competing on a sports team, going to dance class, or being in a scout troop.

Dr. Gray says that unstructured play boosts children’s self-esteem. It enhances their social interactions, builds leadership skills, stimulates imagination, and promotes cognitive development. When youngsters play together, they push their bodies to new limits, take more risks, and feel more powerful and alive.

What Do You Think?

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

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

Answer: 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.

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

Answer: 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