How Parents Typically Praise
Parents everywhere praise their kids when they do well in school, win a ball game, or build an impressive sandcastle, anything that seems to be something remarkable — and, in many cases, anything that’s just plain old vanilla.
Jenn Berman, PhD, a marriage and family therapist and author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy and Confident Kids, says, “We are becoming praise junkies as parents. We’ve gone to the opposite extreme of a few decades ago when parents tended to be more strict. And now we overpraise our children.”
By giving kids heaping portions of praise, parents think they’re building their children’s confidence and sense of self, when, in fact, it may be just the opposite.
“Somehow, parents have come to believe that by praising their kids they improve their self-esteem,” Paul Donahue, PhD, founder and director of Child DevelopmentAssociates, says. “Though well-intentioned, putting kids on a pedestal at an early age can actually hinder their growth.”
Too much praise can backfire, it seems, and, when given in a way that’s insincere, make kids afraid to try new things or take a risk for fear of not being able to stay on top where their parent’s praise has put them.
“There is something about praising your child constantly that is belittling,” Berman says. “There’s an underlying message that the child has to get his parent’s approval all the time and constantly look to the parent for validation.”
Still, don’t go too far in the other direction. Not giving enough praise can be just as damaging as giving too much. Kids will feel like they’re not good enough or that you don’t care and, as a result, may see no point in stretchingthemselves for their accomplishments.
So what is the right amount of praise? Experts say that the quality of praise is more important than the quantity. If praise is sincere and genuine and focused on the effort not the outcome, you can give it as often as your child does something that warrants a verbal reward.
Tips for Giving Practical Praise
Praising your kids is an important part of building their self-esteem and confidence. But before you break out in applause, there are some important dos and don’ts to keep in mind that will help your child find value in your words of encouragement:
Be specific. Instead of saying, “You’re such a good baseball player,” say, “You hit the ball really hard and you are an excellent first baseman.” Being specific is much better and helps kids identify with their special skill, Berman says.
Be genuine. Praise should always be genuine. Kids have a way of knowing when your praise is insincere, and when it is, you lose trust. Worse yet, they become insecure because they don’t believe your positive words, and they find difficulty in telling the difference between when you really mean it and when you don’t, Berman says.
Encourage new activities. “Praise kids for trying new things, like learning to ride a bike or tie their shoelaces, and for not being afraid to make mistakes,” Donahue says.
Don’t praise the obvious. “Try not to overdo praise about a child’s attributes: ‘You’re so smart, handsome, pretty, bright, talented, gifted,'” Donahue says. “Parents and grandparents are, of course, going to indulge in some of this, and that is OK. But if your kids hear a constant litany of praise, it will begin to sound empty to them and have little meaning.”
Say it when you mean it. Saying, “Good job,” when you mean it or, “Boy, you really worked hard on that paper,” tells children that, as parents, you recognize the value of their hard work and efforts, Donahue says. It also tells them that you know the difference between when they work hard at something and when it comes easy.
Focus on the process. Praise children for their effort and hard work, not for their inherent talents. Donahue says, “Remember, it’s the process not the product that matters. Not all kids will be fantastic athletes or brilliant students or accomplished musicians. But children who learn to work hard and persevere have a special talent. As I like to say, pluggers go far in life.”