Praising your child, the right way
The other day, Oshadi - one of my associates, was talking about one
of her life experiences. “After forty odd years, I still remember my
mother’s response to a bouquet I had picked for her birthday, she
started. “All I had been able to find were a few Chrysanthemums,
Anthuriums, Orchids and a single big red rose.
Only the children under the age of seven accept praise at
My mother did not exclaim over the beauty of the blossoms; she just
brought out her best crystal vase, arranged my flowers carefully as if
they were long stemmed roses, sniffed the Chrysanthemums appreciatively
- and gave me a big hug. That was the best praise I got in my whole
Listening to her story, I was thinking how parents today struggle
with finding the right balance when it comes to praising their children:
How much is too much? How much is too little? Is quantity that
important, or is it the quality of praise that really matters? While
there’s no secret formula, experts say understanding the when, where,
and how of praising is an important tool in raising confident children
with a healthy sense of self-esteem.
Suppose your child presents you with his or her latest artistic
creation. It’s a painting of a figure with very long thin legs, no body
and big hair. It’s you. In the corner there’s a bit of yellow which
you’re told is the Sun and beside it some patches of purple paint.
If you’re being honest you’ve seen better, but as your child waits
for your reaction, what do you say? “That’s amazing. It’s the best
painting I’ve ever seen. It’s completely fantastic.” Your child beams as
the picture is attached to the fridge door for the rest of the family to
But is that really the best thing to have said? We tend to assume
that we all enjoy receiving praise, and that it will motivate us to try
harder. But when you look at the evidence, it’s not that
straightforward. It all depends on the wording.
The problem isn’t praise, but inflated praise, words such as
“perfect” or “incredibly good”, as opposed to a simple “good”. Parents
are particularly likely to do this if their child is low in confidence,
hoping it will boost their self-esteem. But this could back-fire. It’s
known that if praise is thought to be insincere, it spoils its effect.
When children were told they had done an “incredibly beautiful
drawing” those with low self-esteem were less likely to choose a
challenging task afterwards than those who were told it was a “beautiful
drawing”. Just one word made a difference. The question, of course, is
why. The researchers speculate that inflated praise sets a standard
that’s too high for them to meet, but this hypothesis hasn’t yet been
What is the best way of praising your child? Intensive studies done
by Carol Dweck and Wulf-Uwe Meyer, both first-class psychologists,
reveal interesting facts.
1. Praise the process, not the person
In ground-breaking studies, Carol Dweck found out that there are two
particular mind-sets in children: fixed versus growth.
Children with fixed mind-sets believe things such as intelligence,
character and creative ability are innate and immutable. In other words,
no matter how much they study or how much effort they exert, they’re
pretty much stuck with the cards they’ve been dealt. Because children
with fixed mind-sets believe their potential is capped, they avoid
challenges that test their abilities.
On the other hand, children with a growth mind-set believe the brain
is a muscle that can grow, and abilities are assets to be nurtured
through hard work. Children with growth mind-sets believe that what they
are born with are raw materials-a launching point. As a result, they
thrive on challenges.
How can you cultivate a growth mind-set in your child? Instead of
“person praise” (e.g., “You are creative”), offer “process praise”:
Praise the strategy (e.g., “You found a really good way to do it.”).
Praise with specificity (e.g., “You seem to really understand
fractions.”), Praise effort (e.g., “I can tell you’ve been practising.”)
2. Keep it real
Wulf-Uwe Meyer, found that only children under the age of seven
accept praise at face value; older children are just as suspicious of
praise as adults. In fact, by the age of 12, children scrutinise words
of praise for truth and hidden agendas. After all, they usually know
whether they actually did a good job.
One of the biggest mistakes parents and teachers do is assuming that
children aren’t sophisticated enough to sense the intentions behind our
praise. You might think that you’re encouraging a child by praising poor
performance, but as it turns out, children may actually perceive
inauthentic praise as a sign of failure. Offer authentic praise for real
Meyer also says that an impressive body of studies shows praise can
be altogether demotivating. Children develop immunity to praise. They
need higher and higher doses of it to be satiated. And as soon as
parents and teachers remove the dangling carrot, children can lose
interest in their activity.
If we’re going to cut back on praising, what should we do instead?
Like the rest of the parents you, too, want your children to
feel encouraged and motivated
Instead of praising, try to observe and comment. For example, make a
simple, evaluation-free statement such as “You put your shoes on by
yourself!” or simply, “You did it!” Such comments acknowledge effort and
encourage children to take pride in their accomplishments. If your child
draws a picture, provide feedback - not judgment - on what you observe:
“Those clouds are big!” or “Boy, you sure used a lot of blue today!”
Like the rest of the parents you, too, want your children to feel
encouraged and motivated. You want to acknowledge their triumphs because
you are genuinely proud of them. The next time you see your one-year-old
tackle her latest challenge, take a deep breath and really connect with
her by praising her process, keeping it real and making a simple
observation about what she’s accomplished.
3. Praise children for traits they have the power to change
When we praise children for their ability, children become more
cautious. They avoid challenges. It’s as if they are afraid to do
anything that might make them fail and lose your high appraisal.
Children might also get the message that intelligence or talent is
something that people either have or don’t have. This leaves children
feeling helpless when they make mistakes.
For these reasons, it’s better to avoid praising children for
ability. Instead, praise them for things that they can clearly change -
like their level of effort or the strategies they use.
4. Use descriptive praise that conveys realistic, attainable
“I like the way you begin your essay by describing the problem and
explaining why it’s important.” This is called descriptive praise, and
it is thought to be more helpful than general praise. When you give a
child descriptive praise, you don’t just tell him he’s doing well. You
give him specific feedback, and you tell him something about your
But there is an important caveat. The standards you convey should be
reasonable. Praise that conveys unrealistically high standards can
become a source of pressure, and make children feel inadequate.
5. Beware of praising children for achievements that come easily.
If you praise children for easy tasks, children may conclude there is
something wrong: either you’re too foolish to realise how easy the task
is, or you think the children are foolish. Such interpretations are
unlikely to occur to younger children.
But as children mature, they become more sophisticated about the
social meaning of praise.