Good job! You’re such a good kid! How many times do parents say these words of encouragement? And rightly so: One of the best tools for positive parenting is giving praise. Praise can show your children that you love and appreciation them, and importantly, lets them know when they’re doing something well.
But how many parents also know that experts and research suggest that some kinds of praise are more effective than others?
When your child does something well, it often just feels natural to say something like, “Wow, that was amazing!” But let’s take a closer look at this kind of praise.
What did the child do to deserve the praise? From such a generic statement, we, as readers, can’t possibly know. And guess what? Though children may be able to take a guess about what they did that was so amazing, they can’t really be sure either.
Tip No. 1: Be specific. Remember that one of the most important jobs we have as parents is to guide and teach our children. The more specific we are about what they’re doing well, the more we are teaching them what good behavior is — and the more they’ll be able to repeat it in the future.
Did they clean up their room without being asked? Try, “Wow, your room looks so nice with all the toys and clothes put away. And I really appreciate that you cleaned up all on your own.”
After your child speeds through her math homework, you encourage her with a heartfelt: “You’re so smart!” But what happens when she struggles with the next assignment, or even brings home a bad grade? If she’s smart when she succeeds, she must be stupid when she has trouble or — gulp — fails.
Tip No. 2: Praise effort, not achievement. When you help your child see that success is because of effort, she will be less likely to give up when challenged. Do this by offering praise that focuses on the work your children put into what they’re doing. For instance, “You concentrated really well and worked really hard on your math homework — and you got through it so quickly!”
Okay, so how about this one: It’s art time and your 2-year-old enthusiastically grabs as many crayons as he can and uses big arm strokes to scribble them all over the paper. Cute? Yes. An enriching exercise in hand eye coordination, fine motor control, and creative expression? Absolutely. The next Van Gogh? Probably not.
Tip No. 3: Be realistic. You can praise your budding artist without going overboard with, “That’s an amazing drawing.” Often, children just want to be acknowledged and they want your attention. So take a hint from tips No. 1 and 2 and acknowledge your child’s efforts by focusing on something specific.
You can try, “Wow, today you really liked to use red.” Children do not need excessive praise; in fact, when you exaggerate, it can even end up making your children feel silly and make you look insincere.
This is also holds true for tasks that should be easy. Let’s say you fawn over your 8-year-old for putting on her jacket all by herself. She may start to have less faith in her abilities (“Gosh, if I get so much praise for doing something so ridiculously easy, I must not be very competent”) and in you when you encourage her for real accomplishments (“I shouldn’t listen to them; my parents get really excited for every little thing I do”).
Finally, to round things off, the best praise is absolutely sincere and is as timely as possible. That is, say it with a genuine smile and really mean it. Sarcasm, comparisons or competitive comments can be confusing and ultimately hurtful to children. And praise is most effective when it is delivered as close to the praise-worthy behavior as you can get it. The longer you wait, the more the positive effects may get dampened by time.
One of the pillars of positive parenting is showing your kids love and support. What better way to do that than praising your children thoughtfully and purposefully? Giving effective praise can take some practice, but eventually it will start to come naturally.
And when you succeed at giving great encouragement, don’t forget to praise yourself for the wonderful job you’re doing raising a confident, successful little person.
Editors Note: VanderBorght has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. She is an expert in early cognitive development in children.