Until recently, many parents held the mistaken belief that it’s important to shower our children with constant praise. Praising our children is instinctual, almost a reflex. Any time your child does something wonderful, it seems natural to say, “Great job!”
But we have to think about what we’re accomplishing with all this praise. Praise can benefit motivation and self-esteem, but these effects aren’t always lasting. Our ultimate goal should be to nurture our child’s intrinsic motivation.
We don’t want our children to become addicted to praise, motivated solely by external approval. As much as possible, we want them to be motivated internally. Our children should want to make an effort, perform well, learn, and grow because it is personally satisfying.
I. What Makes Effective Praise?
What does “effective praise” really mean? Compiled from extensive research on the subject, here’s the ultimate guide to delivering healthy, intrinsically motivating praise to your child.
1. Praise Sparingly
It’s almost shocking to hear it, but too much praise can have a negative impact on our children. This is true for several reasons:
- According to Jim Taylor, author of Your Kids Are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You, excessive praise lowers the bar for children. Kids who are overpraised may not push themselves to improve.
- Excessive praise can also make your child feel that your approval and love are conditional on their performance and achievement.
- Too much praise can create “praise junkies” who crave the approval of others. These children may come to depend on the evaluation and judgment of others rather than learning to form their own opinions of their abilities.
- Excessive praise can also create extreme pressure. As children begin to rely on approval from others, they become terrified of losing this approval. Consequently, they may avoid challenging activities and become self-conscious rather than confident.
- Intrinsic motivation can decrease as a result of excessive praise.
Psychologists and researchers have drawn these conclusions from extensive studies. For example, in one study, preschool children were asked to draw with magic markers. Some received rewards for drawing, while others unexpectedly received rewards. Still, others neither expected nor received rewards.
Later, the children who expected rewards showed less intrinsic motivation for drawing, believing that the purpose of drawing was to earn rewards. Although it’s not a tangible reward, praise can have the same effect. Children may feel that activities and achievements are more for the sake of external approval and praise than for their own enjoyment.
Ultimately, children who receive too much praise may learn to conform instead of innovating. They’re less likely to be creative and self-directing, and they may feel crippled by pressure. They may also choose activities based on what they think will please their parents and earn them the praise they’ve come to need. For these reasons, it’s important to praise our children sparingly.
2. Praise Specifically
Psychologists Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark Lepper, who analyzed over 30 years of studies on the effects of praise, found that children are likely to doubt sweeping or general praise, so it’s important to be specific. Kids perceive specific praise as more sincere and meaningful.
Although it’s quick and easy to say, “Good job!”, try to praise something specific that your child did. Specific praise doesn't mean it has to be extensive. It can typically be summed up in one word: You can praise your child’s persistence, organization, courage, kindness, etc.
Specific praise also gives your child more useful information than general praise. Unlike specific praise, “Good job,” doesn’t tell your child what was good or how they can continue doing well.
Next time, catch yourself before giving generic praise. Ask yourself what your child did particularly well, and say something like, “You organized your toys so well!” or, “It’s great how you kept trying that math problem instead of giving up!”
3. Praise Sincerely
Children are more perceptive than many adults realize, and they often can tell the difference between sincere and insincere praise.
In their research, Henderlong and Lepper also found that when children think your praise is insincere, they assume you feel sorry for them, are manipulating them, or don’t understand them. If this is the case, they will dismiss the praise, making it ineffective.
Insincere praise can be more than just ineffective; it can be damaging. When children know they haven’t done well and are praised anyway, they will wonder why people feel the need to lie to them about their abilities and achievements. They may assume that praise is being used to cover up the fact that they're incompetent or that something is “wrong” with him.
Additionally, you don’t want to give your child false praise that will make them think they don’t need to improve or try harder next time.
When our children do poorly, our instinct may be to praise them to make them feel better. These good intentions will backfire and make your child feel worse, so offer since praise only when it’s earned.
4. Praise Process vs. Person
Person praise is ability-oriented praise, like, “You’re so smart!” or, “You’re very artistic.”
Process praise means praising effort, strategies used, thoughtful concentration, self-correction, etc.
Of these two types of praise, process praise is far more effective. Researcher Dr. Carol S. Dweck explains that person praise can result in a fixed mindset, while process praise results in a growth mindset.
This is because person praise makes children believe that qualities like intelligence are fixed characteristics that don’t change over time. As a result, these children develop a fixed mindset and may avoid challenges that will test their abilities.
On the other hand, process praise encourages children to challenge themselves, take risks, make an effort, and continue learning and growing. These children develop a growth mindset, understanding that intelligence and ability can increase with practice and effort.
Overall, person praise and the fixed mindset it creates can diminish intrinsic motivation and perseverance. If a child with a fixed mindset encounters a difficult challenge, they're more likely to give up. They will believe that they’ve reached the limit of their abilities.
Research suggests that person praise is ultimately damaging when children encounter failures involving qualities that have always been praised.
Instead of giving ability-oriented or person praise, praise your child’s effort, persistence, effective strategies, etc. You’ll enhance motivation and encourage your child to keep trying and improving.
5. Avoid Giving Praise as a Reward
Remember the study with preschool kids and magic markers?
Researchers found that giving rewards for specific behaviors (in this case, drawing) ultimately decreased intrinsic motivation. This was because instead of drawing for enjoyment, the preschoolers were now drawing in hopes of being rewarded.
Praise, although not tangible, is its own reward. Praise makes children — and adults — temporarily feel good about themselves and accepted by others. The problem is that children can become addicted to earning the “reward” of praise.
When this happens, children may only want to work on tasks that will likely result in praise. This can cause children to avoid challenging tasks and only pursue activities at which they know they’ll succeed.
Instead of giving praise as a reward, it can be helpful to give children informational feedback about their competence. This can include, “You scored a 90%,” or, “You got the highest grade in the class.”
This type of praise can increase intrinsic motivation because it influences kids’ beliefs about their potential for success. Now that they know they can score 90%, they may want to shoot for 100% next time.
Studies have shown that this type of praise impacts intrinsic motivation more positively than both no praise and praise used as a reward (showering a child with praise to make them feel good).
These studies show that feedback about competence can enhance motivation and enjoyment, and it can result in students being willing to spend more time on a task.
6. Praise Personal Mastery vs. Comparing to Others
Competence feedback sometimes comes in the form of social comparison (“You did way better than the average kid your age!”). However, experts caution that it’s best to avoid comparing your child to others, even if you do so positively.
If kids learn to gauge their success by comparing themselves with others, they may be ill-equipped to deal with future situations in which they are outperformed.
For example, imagine that your child is a standout in elementary school. They’re constantly told that they got the best grade on the math test, turned in the best essay in the whole class, etc.
Later, they go to a competitive private middle school. They continue to be an exceptional student, but they’re no longer the best in the class. Instead of recognizing their successes, they’re now likely to feel like a failure, because they have come to view success as performing better than the other students.
More study is needed on the potentially harmful effects of comparative feedback, but experts say that praising individual task mastery is likely better than social comparison. Focus on your child’s individual ability to succeed at or master a task.
7. Give Encouragement vs. Evaluation
Try to give your child praise that isn’t evaluative. For example, avoid “I like” statements, such as, “I like how clean your room looks.”
Instead, give your child encouragement, such as, “Your room looks great. You cleaned up all your toys!”
This type of praise focuses more on what your child did well rather than on your own evaluation or judgment of the achievement. Your child can feel more pride in their personal achievements as a result. Additionally, they can develop a sense of internal evaluation rather than constantly rely on others’ judgments.
Evaluative praise can also make your child feel you only like or accept them when they're well-behaved, clean, performing well, etc.
8. Set Appropriate Expectations
Your praise must communicate reasonable, realistic expectations of your child. You don’t want these expectations to be too low or too high.
Indicating that you have low expectations of your child can be harmful to their motivation and self-esteem.
At the same time, expectations that are unrealistically high can also damage a child’s motivation. This is because these impossible expectations put unnecessary pressure on a child. When a child feels something is expected of them that can’t be achieved, they may prefer not to try.
For example, if you overpraise your child with compliments like, “This is the best story I’ve ever read!” your child may feel uncomfortable or anxious. Are they now expected to consistently write the best stories ever? Can they keep up this level of success?
For these reasons, it’s important to convey reasonable and manageable expectations of your child.
II. Praise More Than Achievements
It’s natural to praise our children for good grades, hard work, and stellar athletic or artistic accomplishments. But remember to show your child the importance of good character as well.
Compliment your child for qualities like generosity, kindness, forgiveness, courage, and perseverance. For example, praise your child for sharing toys, standing up for a friend, helping others, or demonstrating good sportsmanship.
Show your child that you care about and appreciate the person they are, not just the things they can do.
III. Alternatives to Praise
Now you know that you don’t want to praise your child constantly, but it can feel cold or cruel to withhold praise and encouragement entirely. Here are a few alternatives to showering your child with praise.
Say “Thank You”
A simple “thank you” to your child for picking up their toys, completing their homework before turning on the TV, or being polite can go a long way. This shows your child that you have noticed and appreciated their good behavior without giving excessive praise.
Let your child become the expert or teacher by asking questions about something they're interested in or something they've accomplished. For example, you could ask, “What’s your favorite part of this drawing?” or, “Which part was the hardest to draw?” If they love dinosaurs, you could also ask them about dinosaurs as a way to acknowledge their expertise on the subject.
Your child will feel a sense of pride in talking about their achievements and interests. You can also ask questions like, “Did you pick up these toys all by yourself?” to acknowledge an accomplishment without overpraising your child.
Sometimes, it really is okay to say nothing at all. Psychologist Jim Taylor explains that children know when they’ve done a good job, and praise isn’t really necessary.
In fact, praise only becomes necessary when we overdo it and teach our kids to rely on praise from others. It may feel strange, but our kids truly don’t need to be praised all the time. Sometimes, it’s okay to say nothing or to just give your child a simple pat on the back or a smile instead.
Making a Change in Your Praise
When praise is given the right way, it can increase intrinsic motivation, perseverance, self-esteem, and self-direction. Effective praise should:
- Be sparing, specific, and sincere.
- Praise the process rather than the person.
- Provide positive information about your child’s competence.
- Avoid heavy reliance on social comparisons.
- Convey realistic expectations.
- Be encouraging rather than evaluative.
- Focus on character and effort rather than achievements alone.
If you want to begin cutting back on excessive praise, you can try a simple “thank you,” focus on your child’s specific goals, ask questions, or even say nothing.
Kids don’t really need constant praise; we just feel the need to praise our kids constantly. Continue to praise your child, by all means, but follow these guidelines to ensure you’re giving praise that is healthy, effective, and intrinsically motivating.