I think I am starting to get the idea of how to praise Andy the right way. Before I was just going over the top and doing it too much. He just didn’t seem to believe me. Now I am being more selective, and really thinking about what exactly I am praising, and making it more believable. My husband and I are trying to build his self esteem, which has been dropping at times,  and it seems to be working.

Key points

  • Praise develops a healthy self esteem.
  • Praise needs to be deserved.
  • User descriptive praise so they understand why the praise is deserved.
  • Praising effort is better than praising results.

When you praise a child, you are selling an idea — the idea that they have done something or have something about them that is good. Sometimes, it can be a hard thing to sell. This can be because of the child’s temperament (they have a poor opinion of themselves and don’t or can’t believe it), or their experience to this point of their lives suggests to them the notion just doesn’t seem believable.

If we can overcome these barriers, and ‘land’ the praise so it is accepted, then we will be doing our child a big favour. If your praise is accepted and believed, this will ‘gird their emotional loins’ against what the big, wide, nasty world is going to throw at them later on. If they believe good stuff about themselves, then they develop an emotional shield —healthy self esteem.

So, how do we praise effectively?

Well, if you are selling an idea, you have to make it believable. If your praise is too over the top (‘You are the cleverest boy in the whole world!’) it may well be disregarded, and is also likely to make you sound ridiculous, someone from who praise is not to be taken seriously. Praise also needs to be deserved. Like the soldier getting a medal pinned on him, praise needs to be for something your child actually did.

Praise also needs to be metered out with caution. Praise is potent; too much, and it can become indiscriminate, lavish, and even toxic; ‘My Sandra is always so clever at her schoolwork, she hardly has to try.’ This can lead (particularly in a child with the wrong temperament) to a lack of social perspective. Different folks require different strokes.

Most children will know this intuitively; in their bones. They know what praise they deserve.  Praise, just like physical gifts, can become substitutes for good old time and effort.

Praise also needs to be understood to be believed. This is where parents often go wrong with praise — we don’t sell the idea enough. Flesh it out — put more information in the praise so your child understands why you are praising them. Faber and Mazlish* describe this as descriptive praise. If you just say ‘Good girl!’ your daughter may have no idea why she is a good girl. If, however, you say ‘I just noticed that you are sharing your toys with Billy. That is very generous of you, well done’, then she knows why.

You may notice in that last example there is a label — ‘generous’. Labelling praise not only makes it more likely to be believable, but is also good for vocabulary development. It puts the word into a social context that is real to your child.

Use descriptive praise

When we use descriptive praise, we can describe what is actually going on, but even further, we can describe our own positive emotional reaction to the events, how we feel about it. So the above example could have been extended to ‘I just noticed that you are sharing your toys with Billy, which makes me feel relaxed. That is very generous of you, well done.’

A trap we can fall into with praise, however, it inserting a ‘but…’ at the end of it. We give praise, but there is a little nasty at the end of it, a qualifier. (eg ‘Hey, that drawing of Grandma is very good. You are a very clever artist, but you have made a big mess all over the table, now tidy it up.’). The ‘but’ word undoes all our good work.

What do we praise?

We also have to think about what we praise. Praising effort is better than praising results.  This is a good technique to reduce sibling rivalry, especially with siblings who vary in abilities. Anyone can make an effort, and then the smarty pants child doesn’t seem favoured over their sibling.

If we can do this praise stuff the right way, it can go a very long way. It should only be offered selectively to make it believable. It will also help improve our negativity / positivity balance, so we don’t have a ‘praise deficit’. Children really, really want to please their parents, and effective praise tells them that they are. Like the soldier wearing his medal, our kids are being given due recognition for their achievements.

*’How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk’ by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish