Praise can build self-esteem, but if you give too much praise (or give it the wrong way) you may actually create the wrong attitudes towards learning and success.
Why? Your child may come to think that every good deed needs a reward, or that even mediocre effort deserves to be appreciated or praised. They may become oversensitive to criticism, or worse, think that failure means that they will be loved less. Plus, if you praise everything, then it loses its meaning and purpose – which is to encourage your child to overcome obstacles and learn something in the process.
Here are some ways to praise properly, so you build self-esteem instead of just making your child “feel good.”
Don't praise qualities, praise effort
It doesn’t help when you say, “You’re so smart, you got it from me!” Your child gets focused on the label – I am smart, or I am a good boy. What does that really mean?
Praise specific actions. “You studied Math every day, and now you got the highest score! Good job!” Or even if he didn’t get the best score, but his grade improved: “You made less mistakes in this quiz. All that practice is paying off. I’m sure you’ll get even better with time.”
Here, you’re praising perseverance and patience – not an innate Math skill or a particular score.
If he’s disappointed by his grade, help him understand that he did the best he could, and analyze what happened, so that he’s more prepared next time. As he grows older, he’ll continue to have that attitude of working hard, instead of just relying on being naturally smart.
Don't Overdo It or Praise the Obvious
A constant litany of praises won't mean anything anymore, and the same goes for praising the obvious. “You’re so handsome!” “You’re the best!” “You’re the smartest kid in your class!”
Your praise actually sounds empty, and may make your child over-confident. If some people say otherwise, or he suddenly performs below expectations, he won’t know what to do.
There’s a difference between unconditional love and acceptance, and unconditional praise. If you want to show your child how much you believe in him, you don’t have to give praise – you can give hugs and kisses, say “I love you” a lot, give high-fives and warm smiles, and other expressions of affection. Let him know that he doesn’t need to “do” anything to feel loved, but that doesn’t mean that everything he does is automatically perfect.
Praise versus Attention
Sometimes, children go to you because they need support, not praise. The support you give (and the praise you give) depends on the age.
For toddlers, use simpler words and pay more attention to tone of voice and body language. Even if you say “That’s such a pretty drawing!” but you’re distracted, they won’t feel good. Stop what you’re doing and look at the drawing. You don’t even have to say it’s pretty, just pay attention to it. “So many bright colors! Tell me more about your drawing.”
Older children may have deeper emotional needs, and go to you when they need extra encouragement and affection. Maybe they’re frustrated with a subject, or angry that they lost a game. Don’t say, “You’re so good, I know you can do it!” Ask them what happened, and listen. Once they’ve vented, ask, “How can I help? Let’s look at what we can do.”
You Don't Always Need To Praise Your Child
Praise should not be a feel-good strategy, which you give without understanding or meaning what you say. Focus on the effort, the improvement, the choices made which can help promote self-esteem, confidence, resilience, and ability to handle pressure and failure.
Each child is different and as a parent, you need to distinguish what is important to them and what will help them be a better person and have a satisfying and meaningful adult life.
About The Writer
Mom to a 20-year old special boy and a very sweet and kind 12-year old boy who mean the world to her. Wife to a very supportive hotelier, who never doubted she can survive any trial hurled her way. An advocate of several special needs groups. Works online as a virtual assistant, social media manager, and a mommy blogger. Trying to help change the world in her own small ways.