Praise is powerful, which is reason enough to consider how we use it with our young ones. Praise and acknowledgement can bolster your child or, if applied recklessly, might be an antidote to the confidence we mean to instill.
You’re praising your child because you love them and have a vested interest in their success and happiness. Even “less effective” praise comes from a positive place. Let’s discuss how to communicate that positivity effectively so your child feels inspired by your praise.
Ability Praise vs. Effort Praise
There are two general forms in which praise arrives: as recognition of our abilities and natural characteristics or as recognition of our efforts.
Ability praise focuses on the characteristics and privileges that your child possesses. Ability praise might sound like:
- “Aren’t you handsome?!”
- “You’re the smartest kid in the class!”
- “You’re so good at math!”
Ability praise feels like simple recognition of our child’s blessings, but it serves to shift the focus to your child’s innate qualities instead of their effort or perseverance. Since they can’t control their intelligence, appearance or other attributes, they can’t control the source of their praise. When they struggle in math or start breaking out with teen acne, will they then be less deserving of praise, and love?
Children who receive ability praise instead of effort praise will tend to see their abilities as fixed, born in them and, thus, impossible to improve. Academic goals become fixated on demonstrating their ability and performing over improving their abilities and learning in and of itself.
Why Is Effort-Based Praise Most Effective?
The differing effects of person/ability praise and process/effort praise were defined in landmark research by Mueller and Dweck, 1998. Since then, we’ve seen further research confirm the superiority of effort praise in increasing motivation.
Small shifts in the way we praise our kids can move the emphasis from what they’re “born with” to what they’re putting effort and energy toward. Effort praise sounds like:
- “You worked so hard on this project!”
- “I’m really impressed with your focus on tonight’s homework.”
- “You always give it your all at soccer!”
Effort- or process-focused praise helps your child see their own potential, developing what’s known as a growth mindset. Effort praise encourages kids to enjoy the process, pursue more learning, and understand that intelligence and ability are not fixed and can be improved through effort and practice.
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How to Give Helpful Praise to Your Child
When it comes to academic pursuits, it’s all about the effort, isn’t it? Making mistakes and needing to try new strategies is key to learning, and praising your child’s effort and perseverance helps them see even their mistakes as valuable.
Pausing to consider how you praise and shifting from ability to effort praise is the first step. There are a few more ways we can make effort praise as positive as possible.
Give Specific Praise
Don’t leave them to fill in the blanks; be specific about the action you’re praising instead of generalizing the situation. Instead of “Good work on your homework!” you might say “I’m so impressed by how you kept trying on this question until you figured it out!” Be specific also with emotions. If you’re grateful for their cooperation, thank them. If you think they should be proud of the hours spent on an art project, you might be specific by saying “You really should be proud of the hard work you put into this project! It shows!”
Compare Kids Only to Themselves
Comparison to peers or siblings is rooted in envy and disgust, whether your kid is the advantaged or disadvantaged member of the comparison. When praising, compare your child’s effort only to their own previous performance. “I notice you found your math practice much easier than last week!” is neutral and encouraging, where comparing to others — “You’re probably the best math student in your class!” — boosts your child up only relative to their “lesser” peers, diminishing their agency.
Don’t Praise Excessively
Too much of a good thing is too much, even when it comes to loving, effort-based praise. We’re more informed, compassionate and child-oriented than any generation before, but our adoration must be tempered or we risk actually demotivating our kids. According to psychologists, “sincere, direct comments” in a “natural voice” are motivating without being over-the-top. Simply be honest! If you’re really impressed, show it. If it’s a run-of-the-mill daily accomplishment, a simple bit of specific feedback — “Thanks for loading the dishwasher carefully.” — will hit the nail on the head.
These simple tips can help you gift your child meaningful and motivating feedback and recognition. We want our kids to express their natural gifts, but we also want them to understand that success comes from work, persistence and confidence.
Do you make a conscious effort to praise your child? How do you share effective praise and feedback? Share below!