I watched my son concentrate, brow furrowed, as he grasped the pencil and wrote his name. When he was done I caught myself about to say “Good job!”, but then I stopped. I’ve read the headlines, “Too much praise is bad” and “Praise turns children into narcissists!” I wondered what to say or do. I felt genuinely proud of him—he usually gets so frustrated that his letters aren’t perfect—so I wanted to say something to show him that I was proud. But would that backfire?
It turns out that praising kids isn’t the problem. The problem is how and why we do it. There are ways to praise our kids that help build them up and enhance their motivation.
For me, to truly change my behavior as a parent I have to understand the why—what’s the problem with saying “good job”?
Let’s break it down.
Here are 3 key ways to build up your child: to celebrate their successes and build them up to handle failures.
1. Nurture a sense of mastery in your child by praising their “process”
Young children think in a fixed mindset. They don’t naturally assume things can or will change. For example, children often don’t realize that an emotion isn’t something that will last forever or that they can change it if they want to (for more on regulation, see my post on The Most Important Skill to Teach Children.) So, when we praise children by saying “you are good at that” or “you’re smart” they will attribute that their ability, rather than their effort.
The problem with children attributing their ability to something innate or unchangeable is that when they are faced with challenge and failure they will assume that they cannot do the task.
They won’t realize that they can work hard to learn the task and eventually succeed. In a study where parents praised effort (and not inherent characteristics/ability) at 14-38 months of age, their children were more likely to believe their ability was changeable, enjoy challenges, figure out ways to improve and attribute their success to hard work when they were 7 to 8 years old.
Researchers call this praising the “person” and praising the “process.” Instead of praising your child’s traits (person), praise their behavior (process), emphasizing how they put in effort or changed something. “Wow you worked hard to balance those blocks!” “When it didn’t work to put those Lego pieces together you tried it a different way and it worked!” Or even simply—“It worked, you really were working hard at that.”
This will create that sense of mastery that if they work hard they can accomplish their goals.
2. Be genuine, sincere, and specific when you praise.
Rewarding a behavior simply to reinforce that behavior can backfire. That being said, there can be situations in which rewards are useful (although perhaps not necessary)—for example getting young children interested in the potty. But once they develop pride for using the potty, it’s time to focus on that internal reward and for the external rewards to fade.
Research shows that when praise is sincere and not only used to reward a behavior that it is beneficial for children’s motivation.
When praise is sincere, don’t hold back, sincere and genuine praise has been shown to increase children’s motivation.
For example, if you are genuinely impressed that your child did something, then tell them, but be specific: “I am so happy you shared your toys with that little girl. Wasn’t it nice to play with her?” “When you share toys it can be fun.” “I am so glad you peed in the potty!” “Do you feel happy and proud? Let’s do a happy dance!”
In the end, as a parent you want to enjoy and share in your child’s successes and that is what we should do! But instead of focusing on the person or even the behavior, focus on their feelings (and your feelings) of internal joy. That ultimately is what is rewarding.
And your child is happy when you are proud. Help them to recognize those feelings of pride, happiness, and satisfaction that come with hard work, good play and trying at something over and over again. That way you are recognizing their natural motivation and enhancing it.
3.Tell your child that they are good and kind.
Praising cognitive and behavioral things is different than praising kindness, goodness, or altruism. Above, I said never praise the “person,” only the “process.” Well this is true when it comes to academics and behavior. In that context, you want your child to know that they can change their behavior.
But when it comes to your child’s belief that they are good or not, you can and should focus on the “fixed” aspect, on her person.
I wouldn’t ever tell my son he is bad or anything negative—but telling him he is kind, good, true, brave, and strong will enhance those qualities in him and help him to internalize those ideals.
Research shows that prosocial “person” praising works especially well for children around the age of 8 and even in 10 year olds. I think it is a good practice to get into at younger ages. Some examples of praising prosocial behavior are: “You are a great sharer,” “you care about others, you are kind,” and “you are a good helper.”
I hope these three strategies help when you want to build your child up. Focus on their mastery and their goodness. Be specific and sincere. And if you say “good job” don’t sweat it, just elaborate on it!