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Sunday, 15 March 2015





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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 face value.

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 life.”

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 see.


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 tested.


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 achievements.

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 standards

“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 standards.

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.

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