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How to Praise Your Kids Effectively

July 6, 2014 | by Adina Soclof, MS. CCC-SLP

5 ways to build up your kids.

Are we praising our kids the right way?

When I was young, an acquaintance in my neighborhood would always say to me, “Adina, you are so nice!” I was always a little scared to talk to her. What if one day I would say something not nice? What would she think?

Frankly, I wasn’t so very nice and I didn’t want to spend a lot of time with her.

I have always had a hard time with praise, including lines like: “Good for you!” “You are the smartest.” “Good job!” “You are the best!”

It always sounded superficial to me. I would think, “Do they really mean it? Am I really the best?” I would also feel stressed: “Can I keep this up? I’m doing a good job now, but for how long?”

The latest research now backs up my feelings. According to Dweck and Mueller, pat phrases like “Nice work,” “Good boy,” “You are so clever” are actually hard for people, especially children, to hear. It creates pressure and is counterproductive.

The same hold true for the use of superlatives: “You are the greatest ball player!” “You are the brightest in your class!” When kids hear this type of praise they’re put into a position where they feel they always have to be the best. They need to live up to their so-called reputation, which is impossible for kids to manage.

Children who are given heavy doses of “good job” tend to be less confident in proposing ideas that others might disapprove. They often won’t make decisions based on what they think is right. Instead, they will spend a lot of time trying to figure out what to do and what to say to make the adults in their lives happy. This type of praise breeds insincerity.

So how can we praise our kids in a way that builds them up, nurtures them and makes them feel good about themselves?

Here are five ways for us to effectively praise our kids:

1) Don’t judge, just see

In order for praise to work, we need to avoid using judgment words. We just want to notice our children’s actions as if we were asked to objectively describe a scene playing out in front of us.

“When Sara wanted to play with the Wii, you let her have a turn.”
“You prepared the Shabbat candles up, and put the Kiddush cups out.”
“You got the ball and you passed it to your teammate and he made the basket!”
“Your room had clothing all over the floor and now all that clothing is hung up or in the laundry basket!”

Praising kids in this way encourages them and builds their self-esteem. It gives them clear pictures of what their capabilities are – independent of whether or not anyone is noticing – so that they don’t have to seek out approval. It is information about themselves that they can use when they are alone, not just when adults are watching. Then they are able to infer on their own:

“I know how to share my toys.”
“I can be helpful.”
“I am a team player.”
“I know how to clean my room.”

2) Notice that they try

Notice the effort they bring to a task, instead of the end result. It sounds like this:

“I see that you cleaned the Legos in the family room and are now working on the dolls. This room is getting cleaner.”
“Your homework tonight sounds challenging. You books are open and you look ready to tackle it.”
“When you played chess with Grandpa today, I saw you thinking about your moves very carefully. You had some interesting moves. I think Grandpa was impressed with your strategy.”

This type of praise builds kids up because they know that they don’t have to be the “best” – they just know they need to try their hardest to succeed. Research has shown that this is the type of praise that truly motivates kids to perform well.

3) Kick it up another notch

“Good praise” should highlight a specific action and the attribute that a child used to fulfill that action.

Instead of: “You are the best brother!” try: “You found a toy that Eli likes. First you tried the bird, but he did not want that. Then you tried the elephant. That is using the trait of patience.”

Instead of: “You are so sweet.” try: “You got Sara a cup of juice. That is how you do chessed, kindness.”

We can also let them know what mitzvah they have performed. Instead of: “You are such a mitzvah boy!” Try: “You got me a tissue. That is the mitzvah of kibud av v’em, honoring parents.

Using praise in this way helps us teach kids the values and attributes that are important to us. It teaches them the traits that we would like them to espouse and the mitzvot that we would like them to perform.

4) Teach them to look at their achievements

Another way we can praise children is to ask them questions about how they felt about their successes. When our kids ask us, “Mommy, was I good? Did you like my play?” we can turn their question around and ask, ”What did you like about your play? What was the best part about performing?”

“What was the most important thing your class did to prepare for this day?”

Asking these types of questions teaches our children self-evaluation skills that help them learn to assess themselves and their accomplishments instead of relying on others. It also strengthens their self-image by encouraging them to internalize what they observe about their own achievements. They learn that they have all the ingredients they need to succeed within themselves.

5) The best things come in small packages

Finally, we can use praise to nurture our relationships with our kids. Most parents get frustrated with their kids’ negative behavior. To relieve some of that tension, parents can be on the lookout for any positive acts their child exhibits. They can then praise them by telling them that their behavior is appreciated.

“But let’s say they don’t do anything good?” is often a parent’s response. Many parents are looking for extraordinary acts of goodness, when it is just the regular stuff their kids do that needs to be noticed:

I appreciate that you told me you were going over to the neighbor’s house.
I appreciate that you put away your jacket.

This type of praise does not generate feelings of pressure. It is just a way to let our children know that we value what he does.

Praising effectively is a challenge. Avoiding judgment words and highlighting specific actions and attributes seems time consuming. Noticing a child’s effort, teaching kids to look at their achievements and appreciating the little things can be a big job. However, it is worth all the effort because it is the best way to build your child’s self-esteem.

*Dweck, C., Mueller, C. (1998) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Vol 75. No. 1. Pp. 33-52

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