Praising our kids: Are we getting it right?Written by Catherine Wilson
What parent hasn't exaggerated the merit of their child's work? And not just once, but countless times? When presented with our son or daughter's latest creative piece, we've beamed with pride and enthusiastically pronounced the work "Awesome!" – regardless of whether it really was awesome or not.
And truth be told, we've often hyper-praised our child for helping with chores too. While gushing "Great job!" we've slapped our kid a high five for tasks as simple as pouring kibble in the cat's bowl.
It's all well-intended. We're simply trying to build our child's confidence and self-esteem. So does it matter if our praise is insincere or unwarranted?
It depends on the age of the child.
By and large, youngsters aren't hurt by over-inflated praise. Our obvious delight in their stick-figure drawing is exactly the response our little one was hoping for.
But as our children mature, we need to give a little more thought to how we praise them, and how our praise impacts them.
Heaping well-meant but ill-conceived praise on kids of elementary age and older can backfire, having the very opposite result parents intended. Seemingly innocuous comments like You're so talented! can even erode a child's confidence in their natural abilities and their internal motivation to succeed.
As it turns out, kids need just the right kind of praise.
Give genuine, deserved praise – not empty flattery
Psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Kevin Leman is fond of reminding parents that kids need regular doses of "vitamin E" – his colloquial term for parental encouragement. But even Leman laments that many kids hear too much unmerited praise.
"Today we live with false praise where a kid does nothing and the parents are cheering crazily for their kid who gave it a lick and a holler," observes Leman.1
That overdose of unwarranted praise doesn't lead to the end goal of healthy self-esteem in kids.
A case in point is a study conducted in the Netherlands by The Ohio State University. As reported in results published in 2015, their test group of children who frequently heard unmerited, ego-boosting praise did not develop a healthy sense of being just as worthy as the next kid. Instead, their parents' frequent suggestions that they were specially gifted or unique made the children feel superior to their peers. In other words, they became narcissistic.2
It's worth considering, too, that undeserved praise may weaken important aspects of your relationship with your child. For example, kids who are savvy enough to see the falsehood in a parent's over-inflated praise can begin to discount their parent's opinion altogether.
"When you tell a kid how wonderful he is, and he knows he's not wonderful, how do you think that settles in his mind?" Leman asks. ". . . The only thing this kind of feel-good therapy accomplishes is telling your child that he can't trust you. Then if he ever does accomplish something worthwhile, and you give him a genuine compliment, he won't believe you."3
Insincere praise can also leave a child feeling misunderstood and unappreciated, since the child may very well conclude, Mom and Dad don't even know the real me – what I care about and what I really am good at.
A very insecure child might fare even worse, interpreting drummed-up false praise as affirmation of their complete lack of merit. Is that all Mom can think of to say? the child might think. That just proves she can't find anything real in me to be proud of.
What should a parent say?
When we give our kids compliments, we need to be truthful and as specific as we can, says Kathi Koch, founder of Celebrate Kids, Inc. and author of Finding Authentic Hope and Wholeness. To help parents give "evidence-based praise," she suggests using the word because.
" 'Because' is one of your power words," says Koch.4 Here's an example of how to use it:
- Wow, you are really growing in generosity. I know because I saw you share your chocolate with your sister.
Praise effort, perseverance and methods – don't praise talent
Perhaps your child truly is extraordinarily good at math, or produces stunning artwork, or is a promising hockey player. If the compliment really is true, is there any harm in encouraging them with comments like, You're so smart! or You're so creative! or You're the best player on your team?
Often-cited work by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck suggests that yes, there is a danger in affirming kids for being talented. Praise that highlights talent can put the brakes on a child's progress.
In one study conducted by Dweck and her colleague Claudia Mueller, two groups of fifth graders were given a non-verbal IQ test. When the results came in for the first part of the test, one group of students was praised for being smart. The second group, however, was praised for working really hard.
When given the chance to try a more difficult problem, 90 percent of the kids praised for effort accepted the offer. As the testing continued, their positive perspective became apparent: they saw challenging problems as an opportunity to learn something new, and didn't feel threatened by the possibility of making mistakes.
In contrast, the students praised for being smart rejected the chance to try a more difficult problem. "They didn't want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent," explains Dweck. When the test continued with more difficult problems anyway, these students became discouraged, saw their mistakes as a personal failure and didn't enjoy the work.
In the end, the ability-praised kids' performance on the final set of relatively easy problems was much worse than their earlier results on similar problems. The skills of the group of students praised for effort, however, had markedly improved.
And here's a startling side note that gives parents something else to ponder: Dweck also found that being praised for their intelligence put pressure on the children's integrity. An astounding proportion of the "ability-praised" students (in total, 40 percent of the group) lied to their peers by inflating their self-reported test scores. Presumably they were ashamed of their true results.5
Summarizing key findings of her life's work, Dweck writes, "[M]ore than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent – and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed – leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.
". . . On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a 'growth mindset,' which encourages a focus on 'process' (consisting of personal effort and effective strategies) rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life."6
What should a parent say?
Praise and encouragement is important for motivating kids and bolstering their confidence, Dweck stresses, but it needs to be worded carefully. She recommends that, when giving praise, parents commend kids not for natural ability, but for their approach. In particular, parents should praise kids for:
- a good effort
- trying different strategies
- or willingness to take on challenges.
By way of example, here are two scripts provided by Dweck:
- You did a good job drawing. I like the detail you added to the people's faces.
- You really studied for your social studies test. You read the material over several times, outlined it and tested yourself on it. It really worked!7
Praise progress of the whole child – don't focus on just one or two traits
What we praise most suggests to our child what we value most. But for our part, it tends to be our child's greatest weaknesses or greatest strengths that capture our attention and become the focus of our affirmation. That can set kids up to have a rather one-dimensional view of their self-worth and personal identity. A child can start to think, I'm the struggling reader, or, I only matter if I'm top of my class.
We need to praise and encourage our child in all aspects of life, and not give the impression that one arena, such as academics, is everything. Our child's spiritual development matters. Their character development matters. Their emotional intelligence matters. Their physical health matters. We want our child to realize that all these areas are important, and to understand their special strengths in each.
"[If kids] know they have an intellectual self and an emotional self and a social self and a physical self and a spiritual self," says Koch, "then when one of those goes rough – their grades or their emotions or their social [life] – they can rely on the rest of them for that period of time and they won't be in the valley as long."8
When we have the right perspective, an incredibly motivating message will underlie all our praise, reminding our kids that life isn't about measuring up to the secular world's view of success or failure. We hone our skills and reach for our personal best because we've already been picked to play on the winning team – God's team. And we want to please the most loving, encouraging Coach of all.
1. Kevin Leman, comment on "Parenting Tips for the Middle School Years," a Focus on the Family radio broadcast aired October 6-7, 2015.
2. Alice Walton, "Too Much Praise Can Turn Kids Into Narcissists, Study Suggests," Forbes, March 9, 2015.
3. Kevin Leman, It's Your Kid, Not a Gerbil (Illinois: Tyndale House, 2011), 86.
4. Kathi Koch, comment on "Helping Your Middle Schooler Develop a Healthy Identity," a Focus on the Family radio broadcast aired August 10-11, 2015.
5. Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Random House, 2006), 71-74.
8. Kathi Koch, comment on "Helping Your Middle Schooler Develop a Healthy Identity," a Focus on the Family radio broadcast aired August 10-11, 2015.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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