Inside: Praising kids too much or saying you’re so smart can undermine natural motivation. Children may come to believe that if something doesn’t come easy to them that they aren’t smart enough. Experts say to praise effort instead. But how?
You may have heard how overpraising your kids can lead to their inability to handle failure, less motivation, and even to an inflated sense of self (or worse narcissism).
If you are anything like me despite knowing this, you still find yourself saying: “Great Job!“
Like those times you want to give your child a little extra encouragement. Or maybe, you feel real genuine pride and you want to express that. In those moments, what can you say that won’t undermine your child’s natural motivation?
It turns out that saying “good job”, isn’t necessarily a bad way to praise, but there are even better ways to praise — ways that can build your child’s internal motivation to work hard and succeed.
1. A Better Way To Praise: Encourage Your Child With Gestures
In one study researchers looked at how kindergarteners were praised. Here is what they found:
- Children who were “trait” praised (e.g. you are a good drawer/you are smart/you are artistic) were the least motivated on a task and showed less enjoyment for the task.
- Children who were praised for their effort (e.g. you worked hard on that drawing) or given ambiguous praise (e.g. Wow! or High-Five) showed higher task enjoyment and persistence, even after task errors.
In other words, ambiguous praise worked just as well as praising a child’s effort.
Children attributed a high-five or a “Wow!” to their hard work.
And not only that but the children who felt the most positive about themselves and their drawings were the ones who received the gestural praises — the thumbs up or the high five.
Doesn’t this make so much sense? When you see your child finally persevere or accomplish something you are happy for them and you want to celebrate. Saying “High-Five” and holding up your hand with a big smile are signs of genuine pride and encouragement.
Gestural praise helps us celebrate the moment with them.
This is a little different than offering passive praise, which makes children realize we have recognized their work.
With an enthusiastic high five, we are joining them in their success instead of simply recognizing it.
When we do this — we aren’t really praising our kids, we are encouraging them. It is a subtle, but important difference. It turns out that the best way to encourage our kids isn’t what we say to them, but instead it was we do with them.
So, next time your child accomplishes something, join in the fun and give them a big high five!!!
2. A Better Way To Praise: Ask Your Child How They Feel When They Persevere
The next time your child accomplishes something — especially something they worked hard on and you see that they are feeling proud of themselves, say — “How do you feel right now?”
Reflecting on how it feels to accomplish something helps to counterbalance the brain’s negativity bias.
We wouldn’t have survived as a species if we hadn’t become especially attuned to learning from our mistakes and paying attention to negative emotions. That means, naturally we notice when we fail and we notice when we feel bad.
Our kids are the same. It hurts us see our kids be hard on themselves, but if we look inside ourselves, we’ll find it very relatable.
So, how do you help balance that focus on the negative? By pointing out the good. It is just as important to take note when we do something well. But, instead of overpraising our kids, simply notice when they feel proud of themselves and help them notice that.
When you know your child is feeling that sense of accomplishment, help them notice that feeling. Ask them to describe that feeling —
“How do you feel right now?”
“What does it feel like to have worked through something hard?”
“How does it feel to overcome something like that? Can you describe what you are feeling?
How do you feel to accomplish your goal?
And then — the next time they want to give up or feel like something is too hard– remind them of how it felt when they pushed through something hard before. The memory of that feeling will make accomplishments so much more meaningful than any kind of external praise or reward.
Related Reading: How to Help Your Child Turn Negative Self-Talk into Self-Kindness
Over time, those good feelings associated with accomplishment will become a part of your child’s sense of self. And they will think to themselves: I can do hard things, I can face my fear, I can work through things that feel overwhelming, I can persevere.
That is exactly what we want for our kids. Don’t be afraid to celebrate those successes — give your child all the high-fives, and always point out when they might be feeling proud themselves.
Books On Growth Mindset, Perseverance, and Believing in Yourself
If you have followed my blog for a while, you know I love using books to teach children about emotions, behaviors, and other life lessons.
Here are some of our favorite books about having belief in yourself, perseverance, and a growth mindset.
I Can’t Do That, YET: Growth MindsetThe Girl Who Never Made MistakesThe Most Magnificent ThingThe Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple GrandinThe Book of MistakesAfter the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again)Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to BeThe Thing Lou Couldn’t DoBeautiful Oops!Peter Reynolds Creatrilogy Box Set (Dot, Ish, Sky Color)Whistle for WillieUnstoppable Me!: 10 Ways to Soar Through LifeRosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers