- Why should we praise children?
- How often should we praise children?
- What are some positive praise examples?
- What should you avoid when praising children?
- What is ‘inflated praise’?
- Are there any books about praising children?
- What do the experts say about praise?
Being a parent calls for making judgement calls on so many things, and one of those things is praising children. If you praise too much, will they become over-confident? If you praise too little, will they start to feel insecure or not good enough?
We’re here to help you understand why praising is important, the best ways to praise kids and how often is “enough”. Plus, we also offer some book recommendations for that extra helping hand in understanding why praising children is vital to healthy development.
Why should we praise children?
Take yourself back to the last time someone said something positive to you, about you. Maybe your work colleague complimented that presentation you gave recently, or your boss congratulated you on the progress you’ve been making. Or perhaps your partner gushed over the delicious meal you made last night.
Whatever it was and however the compliment was delivered, it sure felt good, didn’t it? Being told we’re good at something gives us that warm, shiny feeling inside, makes our smile touch our ears and spurs us on to do more of the same or do even better next time. This is exactly why you should give positive praise to your children. Let us be more specific about the benefits of praising a child…
Confidence is not innate, and it certainly doesn’t grow on trees. Thus, children need certain things to be able to grow into confident adults. One of those things is praise.
Positive thoughts, positive talk
The things you say to your child sink in, which is why it’s so important to keep your words as optimistic as possible. This will encourage your child to think positively about themselves, and in turn, talk positively about themselves too.
If you tell your child when they do well, they’re given the opportunity to feel proud of their abilities and achievements. And because of your encouraging feedback, they’ll also learn to recognise when they do well.
Nurtures a growth mindset
If a child receives more praise based on their actual efforts and less on the outcome of their efforts, it’s more likely that they’ll develop a growth mindset. A growth mindset enables them to focus less on awards and more on the process of learning. If more emphasis is put on learning, children will start to understand that their abilities can be improved with practice and they’re more likely to persist. 🧠
By contrast, a fixed mindset is what develops when a child believes that their intelligence and abilities are fixed traits that cannot grow. They learn this through being praised only on their competencies, for example, “you’re so smart” or “you’re great at science”. Fixed mindsets can lead to children giving up when they find a task challenging because they don’t feel their innate ability is enough.
It’s human nature that if we are told we are good at something, we will try our hardest to do that something again. Your praise can act as the perfect motivator if communicated in the right way to your child.
Inspires them to do well
Recognising your child’s hard work, creativity or achievements will inspire them to continue working hard.
How often should we praise children?
It’s important not to praise every single positive action, otherwise, your children will think they can do no wrong.
According to research that was presented in 2017 by Dr Sue Westwood at De Montfort University at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference, a key finding was that parents should praise their children five times a day.
A study was carried out on 38 parents of 2- to 4-year-olds where each parent was asked to fill out a questionnaire about their children’s behaviour and well-being. Some of those parents were then advised on how and when to praise their children for good behaviour. They were also asked to keep track of how many times per day the praises occurred.
This continued for four weeks, and the parents who said they praised their children five times a day witnessed an improvement in their kids’ well-being, compared to the parents who weren’t keeping track.
Westwood, a chartered psychologist and Senior Lecturer at De Montfort’s School of Applied Social Sciences, commented: “Following the five praises initiative led to improved behaviour as well as reduced levels of hyperactivity across just a four-week period. This simple, cost-effective intervention shows the importance of effective parental praise and when used on a regular basis, it has been shown to have a significant impact.”
While this advice is not expected to be followed exactly every day – a little less or more is fine – the main goal is to become well-versed in positively praising your children daily. There should not be long gaps in between giving praise and the habit needs to be observed daily over significant periods of time, not just for a few days until the novelty wears off. If you think you’ll forget, set reminders on your phone or leave post-its in your diary. 📱
What are some positive praise examples?
If you’re not sure of how to praise a child with words, take note of these useful tips on how to encourage children and praise them in the most successful way.
It’s so tempting to want to encourage children and build their confidence at every turn, but if praise is perceived to be dishonest or insincere, it can do more harm than good. While also being ineffective, insincere praise can lead children to self-criticise.
So, next time you want to praise or encourage your child, instead of telling them they are a “genius” for getting an answer correct, go for the more honest approach: “The answer you gave for that question was really good!”
Similarly, if your children have made you something that they know is not exactly up to scratch, telling them that it’s “amazing” will lead them to immediately believe that you’re not being honest. Replace your sweeping “amazing” with something a little more focused, such as: “I really like this part, you made/drew/created it so carefully.”
Notice the small things
Instead of using over-arching phrases such as “what a beautiful painting” or “amazing job!”, try to pick up on the smaller things that led to your child’s successes.
Descriptive praise examples include commenting on the colours used in a painting as opposed to the overall finish of the final piece or commending them on how thoughtful some of the answers were in their homework instead of praising the homework as a whole. This is a really effective way of sending positive messages and it shows your child that you’re being sincere because you have noticed something specific.
It’s worth noting that praise shouldn’t only be saved for academic endeavours but can also be just as valuable when applied to home life. And the same rule of picking up on the details applies; when your child helps you with a household chore, replace “good job” with something like “thanks for helping me with this – I like how you arranged the books so neatly and now we can find our favourite books even quicker!”
Praise the process, not the achievement
If you applaud your child for the effort they have put into something, they are much more likely to attribute their success to their efforts and less to the outcome.
If you emphasize how pleased you are with the outcome, it’s possible that they will learn the only way to get recognition is to do well or succeed. Upon hearing that your child has achieved excellent exam grades, try a “I’m really proud of how well you studied and prepared for your exams” instead of a “wow, what an amazing grade! You’re so clever!”. This will reinforce the belief to your child that consistent and persistent effort is the key.
What should you avoid when praising children?
Comparison praise is when you praise your child by comparing them to others. For example, “you are so clever, just like your brother” teaches them that the things they do are always comparable to others. Inevitably, your child will learn that winning or “being the best” is more important than learning and working hard. If you praise your child using comparison, it’s likely that they will continue to compare themselves throughout childhood and beyond.
Don’t praise children for their looks alone
While it’s normal and common to believe that your child is beautiful or handsome, praising them for their looks alone can decrease their self-esteem. Your children might learn that their appearance is directly related to their self-worth.
This doesn’t mean you need to avoid compliments altogether, just try a different approach. For example, instead of saying “you’re so beautiful/handsome/pretty,” focus on something they’re wearing: “I really like the green shade of your trousers – is green your favourite colour?” This then opens a conversation and also shows your child that you’re interested in them.
Don’t praise every little thing
If you praise your child for every small thing they do, they will soon learn that you’re not being honest and sincere. They are also likely to become accustomed to being praised so often, and then if you forget one day or you suddenly choose to praise less, their self-esteem may be affected resulting in them thinking they’ve done something wrong or are not good enough. Like praising every small thing, going too big on praise is also ill-advised, which leads us to…
What is ‘inflated praise’?
“Wow – you’re amazing at this!” “You’re the best player!” “You did incredibly well!” “That’s unbelievably beautiful!”
These are just a few examples of inflated praise; instead of telling your child that they did well, you tell them they did “incredibly well” and instead of telling them the painting is beautiful, you say it’s “unbelievably beautiful”.
While you may think that by modifying your already-positive praising words with extra adjectives and adverbs you are boosting your child’s confidence and self-esteem, you’re actually doing the opposite. The more inflated praise they get, the higher the standards they set for themselves, which inevitably leads to disappointment in the future or not taking on more challenging tasks for fear of not receiving praise.
For children who already suffer from low self-esteem, inflated praise can have a detrimental effect because they could discover the praise is not true or genuine and this can lead them to feel worse about themselves.
Are there any books about praising children?
Sometimes, a little help can go a long way, so we have compiled a list of books that might come in handy when you need that extra boost of inspiration for praising your child. 📚
Raising and Praising Boys written by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer
Using insightful tips, this practical guide offers an understanding of why acknowledging boys’ sensibilities is key to knowing how to offer your sons the right praise.
Raising and Praising Girls written by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer
From learning how to use praise to its maximum effect and teaching girls to not fear failure, this accessible guide is all you need to understand how to praise your daughters in the best way.
Praise, Motivation and the Child written by Gill Robins
For teachers who are wondering how best to utilise praise and encouragement in the classroom, this book is aimed at practising and training primary school teachers. Packed with case studies and insightful points of reflection, as well as parental perspectives, find out what really happens when children are praised.
NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children written by Po Bronson, Ashley Merryman
Featuring advice on how praising effort instead of ability is key, this book has been making waves since its publication in 2011 due to its revolutionary perspectives and is considered a must-read for any parent.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success written by Carol S. Dweck
If you want to motivate your children and help them raise their grades and reach their potential, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck reveals how you can achieve this while also learning about fixed and growth mindsets.
Between Parent and Child: Revised and Updated: The Bestselling Classic That Revolutionized Parent-Child Communication written by Dr Haim G. Ginott and edited by Dr Alice Ginott and Dr H. Wallace Goddard
Introducing new communication techniques that revolutionise the way parents speak and listen to their children, this book is a revised edition of a bestselling classic that’s been helping millions of parents strengthen relationships with their kids.
What do the experts say about praise?
- On why focusing on process praise is so important, renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck states: “Process praise keeps students focused, not on something called ability that they may or may not have and that magically creates success or failure, but on processes they can all engage in to learn.”
- As we previously pointed out, while inflated praise is well-intentioned, it can backfire. Eddie Brummelman, Assistant Professor at the Research Institute of Child Development and Education at the University of Amsterdam, says why in his article, The Praise Paradox: “When we seek to raise children’s self-esteem, we often inflate our praise. Instead of telling children that they made a nice drawing, we tell them that they made an amazing drawing. And instead of telling children that they did well, we tell them that they did incredibly well. But such inflated praise can backfire. When we tell children that they did incredibly well, they may infer that they should do incredibly well all the time. As struggles and setbacks are inevitable, children may continuously fall short of the standards set for them and feel down about themselves.”
- Reflecting on the downsides of too much praise, Richard Farson, psychologist, educator and author, once said: “Undoubtedly, the most threatening aspect of praise is the obligation it puts on us to be praise-worthy people. If we accept praise, if we really believe the best about ourselves, then we are under an obligation to behave accordingly. This is deeply frightening to us. For if we really believe it when we are told that we are competent, or intelligent, or beautiful, then we are continually on the spot to be competent, or intelligent, or beautiful, not only in the eyes of the person who praised us but, even worse, in our own eyes. The responsibility to be continually at our best, to live up to our talents and abilities, is perhaps our most difficult problem in living—and we naturally defend against it.”
So, while there are certainly some approaches to avoid when praising your child, there are myriad ways in which you can do so successfully, resulting in smiles all around. 😊