Constructive Praise

parents praising child
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Confidence is earned, not bequeathed.

That truth is supported by a wealth of recent research about children. Scientists are discovering that when kids get overpraised — when their parents affirm successes out of all proportion to reality — the child inevitably pays for it. Consider a few everyday examples:

“Yeah, you struck out. But the pitcher cheated!” to a kid struggling to figure out which end of the bat to hold.

“You made an A on the test! You’re the smartest kid at school!” to a child who knows exactly where she stands on her class’s intelligence spectrum — and it isn’t at the top.

“You deserve to be the lead in the play!” to a child who is in awe of the acting ability of classmates who got the lead roles.

When kids get overpraised, they know at some level that the praise isn't based on reality. So they develop a fear of taking risks and of failing. They have not yet developed the capacity to think, I know what I’m capable of and what to do when I come to a situation beyond my capability. Instead, they overflow with anxiety and shame, and often stop trying at all.

Confident kids

Kids need confidence to win at life, and lots of it. But the path to genuine self-confidence is a history of success. When a child can look back at 20 track meets that went well, or a series of successful school projects, they begin to feel confident. And they should.

Confident kids don’t have to talk themselves into “I can do this.” They know they can because they've already done it.

The art of praise

Praise is an important part of parenting. But we sometimes praise our children in ways that can actually harm them. Praise that seems positive — such as praising things that take no effort, or praising tasks that are required of our child — can cause problems. When these patterns of praise become overall trends, parents risk fostering attitudes of entitlement in their children. Consider the following suggestions for using healthier praise, praise that will contribute to building resilience and confidence in your children: 

• Praise what takes effort. Rewards and praise are most effective when they focus on an achievement that took time and energy. Usually, when praise is most effective, that achievement would involve a child’s character or internal makeup. But praise for what takes no effort can be unhealthy. To repeatedly praise a little girl for being pretty puts her in a bind. What she hears is, "What gets me loved is something I can’t do much about." She also hears, "My inside isn’t important, just my outside."

Consider how that little girl would feel if instead she heard, “You work really hard at school.” Now what quality is receiving the praise? Her diligence, which she can do a lot about. Although looks fade over time, character will not. This girl's character will grow and blossom and become even more beautiful her entire life.

• Praise the extraordinary. Praise should be reserved for those times when a child stretches himself beyond the norm, puts some extra effort or time into a task or exceeds expectations. It’s not about doing the minimum, the expected. As a child grows older, he'll recognize that no one gets a party for showing up to work on time. Jesus put it this way: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’ " (Luke 17:10).

• Praise with specifics. “You're amazing!” “You're so smart!” “You’re so awesome!”

Our culture is awash in exaggerations that have roughly the same value as an empty calorie. Both yield insignificant benefits. I like to say that the brain has "buckets" where different information goes. Praise should always go in the correct bucket: the bucket of hard work, being kind, being honest or being vulnerable. But the brain has no appropriate bucket for nonspecific, excessive statements, and is unable to make constructive use of them.

I once praised my family this way, until I realized that this type of praise was just a shortcut. It takes little effort to speak such phrases, and I could say these things to my wife, my kids or a fence post. It didn’t really matter which. It requires effort to observe and relate to a child about a particular praiseworthy behavior or attitude — maybe a specific test or project a child succeeded at, or that extra measure of effort she put into a race or difficult musical piece.

Avoid praising to create a special identity. Every child needs affirmation when he has done well in class, at a hobby or in a sport. That is why competition can be healthy. The message should be, “You are good at what you do.” But when the message crosses the line to, “You are a better person than others because of what you do,” or, “You deserve special treatment,” trouble results.

As a parent, the right message is, “Great job on defense in the soccer game! You worked hard with your team and your individual plays were excellent. Now go and help the coach pick up the equipment.” Top-tier executives, college students, managers and athletes all have to stand in line. Keep in mind that while your child may be better in ability, she is no better intrinsically. In the eyes of God, she is no better than anyone else, as the Lord is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34).

• Keep praise based on reality. One of the saddest things I see encouraging parents do is to give a child hope in an area even though no real basis exists for that hope. Buoyed by comments such as, “You can do anything you want to,” a child might spend years and all of his energy in traveling down a path that is simply wrong for him. Consider the current crop of talent competition shows, such as "American Idol" and "The Voice." In the early rounds, there are always young people who have undoubtedly been overpraised and never gently told they have limited singing talent. The judges will be the first ones to give them a dose of reality — and that reality often proves to be devastating. It is much better for parents to encourage both dreams and hard work, while helping their child deal with reality. This difficult balance is a mark of great parenting.

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