Common parenting wisdom says that we should lavish kids with praise whenever they behave well or do something good—the presumption being that praise makes kids feel good, and when they feel good, they behave better.
While the latter half of this theory is undoubtedly true, behavior is linked very strongly to emotion and, unfortunately, most praise doesn’t make kids feel good or motivated.
“Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines—rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions. There are similar regulations about the administration of emotional medicine.”—Dr. Haim Ginott
This quote from the late Psychologist and teacher, Dr. Haim Ginott, neatly sums up the problems with praising kids. Most of the common praise heaped on kids today decreases, rather than increases, motivation because it makes children less likely to repeat a behavior unless there is a reward or offer. Popular generic praise has another drawback, it often causes the child to feel that they are being ignored or dismissed, rather than really seen.
So, should you avoid praise altogether? No, you just need to administer it carefully. Mindful praise can be a great addition to your parenting toolkit.
Try these ten simple swaps:
1. Instead of: “Good job!”
Try: “Thank you for helping me tidy up. I especially like the way you lined the shoes up neatly together. That will make a really big difference when we’re trying to find our shoes in the morning,”
Being specific is one of the keys to more effective praise. ‘Good job’ is non-specific—it doesn’t tell the child what they have done that has made you happy, it offers no constructive feedback and doesn’t provide them any clues about what behavior they should repeat in the future.
Tell them exactly what you are proud of. Point out why it has made you happy, so that they can replicate it next time and. Most importantly, specificity helps them feel valued.
2. Instead of: “You did it!”
Try : “I’ve been watching you try to tie your shoelaces for a long time now. It’s tricky isn’t it? I’m so proud that you kept trying and didn’t give up though. I’m sure that you’re going to get it soon with all this practice and patience!”
Praise the effort, not the outcome. Focusing only on achievements can demoralize and demotivate a child very quickly. It’s alright to praise success, but it’s more important to praise the effort that led to that success, even before it did. Praising effort motivates and shows the child that you believe in them.
3. Instead of: “You look so handsome/pretty!”
Try: “I love the animals on your t-shirt, which one is your favorite? Why is that?”
Praising children, especially girls, for their looks can decrease their self-esteem. They may begin to feel that people only like them because of how they look, which can build up to a tremendous level of pressure as they get older.
Praising a child for their appearance can unintendedly tie feelings of self-worth with their looks. If you want to comment on appearance, focus the praise on what the child can change, for instance, their clothes, and use them to start up a conversation that shows the child you’re really interested in what they think and feel.
4. Instead of: “That’s a great drawing!”
Try: “Wow, I love the color you have chosen for the flowers, why did you choose to paint them in that color?”
You may have been shown a hundred pieces of artwork this year, but to your kid, each one is special and new. While it feels easier to say, “That’s a great drawing,” without really looking properly, the looking properly is what children really want.
Picking out parts of the picture and asking the child about their choices shows that you’re really looking at, and appreciating, their work. Which, in kid speak translates into you looking at and appreciating them.
5. Instead of: “Way to go buddy!”
Try: “You really put so much effort into that piece of work. I’m so pleased that your teacher has recognized that. You really deserve that grade. Is there anything you learned from this piece that you can use to improve your work next time?”
If your child works hard, notice it. Tell them you saw them working hard and that their effort was valued. When they get a good grade, don’t just celebrate the outcome, but discuss with them what went well. This is a great opportunity to help future school work by asking the child to consider the processes and actions that led to the good grade and applying them again in the future.
6. Instead of: “Smart girl!”
Try: “You worked really hard on that math problem. I knew that you could solve it if you really focused!”
Praising kids for fixed attributes—such as intelligence, or aptitude at certain subjects—can really backfire. If children think they are naturally good at something, not only will they tend to not try so hard next time, but they can get quickly disillusioned if they struggle, questioning if they are clever after all.
7. Instead of: “That was nice of you!”
Try: “I saw you help that little boy when he fell. He was really upset, wasn’t he? I think you really helped him to feel better when you gave him a hug though. It feels good to help people, doesn’t it?”
This is once again about noticing what your child has done and letting them know that you have seen, and appreciated, their actions by clearly describing what you have seen. Asking the child to reflect on how they feel about their positive actions significantly increases the chance of repeating them another time.
8. Instead of: “Yay, you made a poo in the potty!”
Try this: “You made a poo in the potty! I know you tried a few times this morning and didn’t manage to do anything, but all that practice has really helped, hasn’t it? Now you’ve managed to do it!”
Potty training and praise tend to go hand in hand, but praising kids for their ‘achievements’ can really backfire here. First, they may strain to do something when they don’t need to go. Here the praise can teach them to ignore their body’s signals and override them to get praised. This is not what you want to teach in potty training.
Second, praising results misses all the effort put in, even when they didn’t manage to do something, or get to the potty on time. It’s this effort, though, that got them to the end point. Once again, focus on the effort, even if there are accidents, not the outcome.
9. Instead of: “Yay, you finally ate all your dinner!”
Try: “I guess you’re not hungry right now, that’s OK. I’ll put this food in the microwave, let me know if you want me to reheat it for you later.”
Praising for eating is perhaps the most counterproductive praise of all. It encourages children to stop listening to what their bodies are telling them. They learn that it is good to eat when they are not hungry to please others, and to eat things that they don’t like to feel good. In time, these eating behaviors can quickly lead to overeating, comfort eating and emotional eating. Keep praise well away from the dinner table.
10. Instead of: “Good job for calming down!”
Try: “You were really mad, weren’t you? It’s OK to be angry sometimes. As you get older you’ll learn more ways to control your temper. Until then I’m happy to help you to calm down.”
Praising children when they are ‘good’ and ignoring them when they are ‘bad’ can cause all sorts of problems. When kids are mad they don’t get angry for no reason. They’re angry because they don’t feel good, and they can’t control their emotions. Heaping on the praise when they calm down is like saying to them, “I only like you when you’re happy.”
Supporting them with their emotions, whatever they are, helps them to feel validated and connected to you, which will help them to share their feelings with you in the future. Praising a kid for hiding their feelings from you unsurprisingly causes many issues as they get older.
Praising mindfully and effectively takes time. Most of us were raised with superficial praise, and it’s all too easy to slip and repeat the words you heard from your parents subconsciously. It’s alright to slip and say “good job” sometimes. Just try to slowly move towards being more mindful of what you say. In time, this new way of praising will become second nature, especially when you see such good results from it.