Why the Way We Praise Matters

Sara and her son Finn.

by Sara O’Brien, Bernie’s Babies Teacher

“Research has shown that how you praise your children has a powerful influence on their development” -Jim Taylor Ph.D. Psychology Today

We all want our children to have a strong self-esteem and feel good about the things that they can do. It feels good to be praised and we want our children to have the self-confidence and motivation to keep trying new things and it’s hard to believe that there is a wrong way of doing it. However, our well-meaning praise can have the opposite effect. According to several studies, children who are constantly praised can become unmotivated, egotistical or doubt themselves and their abilities for fear of being wrong.

Jenny Anderson refers to it in her article for the New York Times titled “Too Much Praise Is No Good for Toddlers”. She states that in the long run, children who are praised for their performance are hit hard by the lack of praise in the “real world”. While this may seem like we’re getting ahead of ourselves the building blocks for healthy self-confidence begins in the early ages and has long-term effects.

So is there a right way to praise our children? In his self-described rant on Psychology Today, Jim Taylor states that “children develop a sense of competence by seeing the consequences of their actions, not by being told about the consequences of their actions.” The great news is young children are already pretty motivated to try new things and experiences so they don’t really need praise at all. They simply need an acknowledgement of what they accomplished, “you put on your shoes”, “you cleaned up your toys”, etc. As children get older praise should be about things that they can control (focus, effort, attitude, etc.) rather than things out of their control or inborn (intelligence, appearance, etc.) for example, “You worked really hard to build that tower” or “you felt really frustrated with this puzzle but you kept trying”.

If you find yourself involuntarily repeating “great job” like I do, you can quickly and easily follow it up with intentional praise about your child’s accomplishment (“Great job…you were really concentrating on writing your name”). The more aware you are of your use of generic praise, the more you will see it go by the wayside and soon you will see your praise for your child transform; like any new skill, it takes focus and practice.

Just like constructive criticism can help us improve a skill, targeted praise is more beneficial than the generic “good job”. So be mindful, be specific and be intentional. For more examples and more in-depth information about praising children please visit the links below.