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Did the title of this story catch you by surprise? Yes, praise can be a great tool that can be used to motivate children. But sometimes it can cause more harm than good. Find out why
Scene at a home in Church Street, London, UK: Four-year-old Gemma is trying to build a castle with blocks. After several attempts, her structure still doesn’t look like a castle. But, she excitedly calls out to her mother: “Look what I have made!” Her mother, who is busy cooking, without even looking at what Gemma has built, responds,“Nice job!”
Scene at a home in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia: Eight-year-old Sara is back home from school. She shows her mother her report card. She has an A in most subjects. Her mother is delighted with her performance. She gives her a hug and says: “You are really intelligent Sara. I couldn’t have asked for a better child.”
Scene at a basketball court in Chicago, USA: 13-year-old William is disappointed that his team lost a basketball game. He had a bad game and is upset at his own performance. Seeing him upset, his father tries to make light of it. He tells him, “It was just a game. You are not to blame. You played like a champ.”
Different countries, different situations, one common word – Praise. What’s wrong with these statements you might ask? After all, isn’t the parent building the child’s self-esteem by praising or comforting the child in each of the three scenes described above?
However, if you look more closely at the three situations, you will find that in the first one, Gemma’s mother is dishing out praise in a preoccupied, disinterested manner. In the second situation, Sara’s mother is labelling her as ‘intelligent’. She seems to be valuing her daughter because of her intelligence when she says - I couldn’t have asked for a better child. In the third case, William’s father is trying to boost his son’s morale, but he is being insincere in the process and his son is well aware of that. Unfortunately, all three attempts at praise to boost a child’s self-esteem can not only be counter-productive, they can even be harmful. So, what exactly is the ‘right praise’ and how can you master it, as a parent? Read on to find out.
When you praise a child, you express your appreciation or approval for the child’s efforts, achievements, behaviour or characteristics. Praise could be verbal (a compliment) or non-verbal (a smile, hug or pat on the back). When praised, children generally feel proud and pleased. This positive feedback builds a child’s confidence and motivates him to continue behaving in the way that earned him the praise.
Traditional societies hesitated to praise a child believing that it would make him overconfident, complacent and even arrogant. The belief that praising children was good came about when the Baby Boomers became parents. They believed that it was vital to boost a child’s self-esteem, and praise was seen as a vehicle to do so. What was not considered, however, was that life has a way of telling children how capable or incapable they really are through success and failure – irrespective of what their parents tell them.
When praise is misplaced or used too often and for no real reason, the child realises the emptiness and insincerity of the praise, and its value is lost on the child. The child stops believing what you say, even when the praise is genuine. So, it’s important to give your child the right kind of praise - the right amount, at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons. Overuse, underuse, and incorrect use of praise, can actually harm your child.
A study conducted by critically-acclaimed psychology professors, Jennifer Henderlong and Mark Lepper early this century, showed that the effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation and perseverance range from beneficial to negligible to detrimental.
The evaluation inherent in praise is what's problematic. No one likes to feel constantly judged. It has a dampening effect on confidence, initiative, and simply being able to take pride in one's accomplishments.
- Laura Markham, parenting expert and author
What’s the right way to praise a child? Praise children for traits they have the power to change – effort, hard work, sense of responsibility, discipline, focus, compassion, and generosity. Praise can be a powerful motivating force if you ‘praise to encourage’. All praise should be aimed at encouraging the child so her motivation to perform comes from within (is intrinsic) and is not dependant on external factors such as continuous praise or acknowledgement from others. Effective praise focuses on the:
Deliver praise effectively: You can make that moment of praise both special and effective by:
Interestingly, an American study published in 2014 has found that gestural praise (a thumbs up, victory sign, or a high five) is very effective. This kind of praise does not explicitly attribute success to either talent/ability or effort. Yet, children who were praised this way showed increased motivation and persistence, and positive feelings about themselves and their work.
Choose your words carefully: How you word the praise is vital. Instead of saying, “How smart you are, I am so proud of you,” you can say, “You must be so proud of yourself. All your effort and determination has paid off.” Often, all you need to say is a simple ‘Thank You’.
Encourage your child to be his own judge: For instance, instead of saying, “How beautifully you have painted that pot!” it is better to ask questions, “What do you think of the pot? Do you like how it looks after the painting?” This will make your child rely on his own judgement rather than yours.
Consider your child’s age: Parents need to be sensitive to their child’s developmental level while delivering praise. For instance, babies and toddlers benefit from praise that encourages them to explore their surroundings and reach their milestones by just reconfirming what they did, “You ate all the food by yourself today!” You have to be more careful in how you praise older children – they may look for motives behind the praise. They may feel patronized or manipulated, particularly if you have been praising them too frequently or insincerely.
Be specific: Instead of general praise like, ‘good job’, ‘fantastic’ and so on, highlight specifics in your praise. For instance, instead of saying: “You draw so well”, you could say “I love the colours you have chosen for this picture.”
Praise your child for little things: When your child is trying something new, even if it is a small task, appreciation works as encouragement and boosts optimism. For instance, praise your toddler for trying hard to tie his shoelaces. However, it is important to offer praise only for an action that merits it. Parents must be careful about praising children for achievements that come easily, or for doing what they love doing anyway.
Praise is effective when given to show genuine appreciation for a child’s behaviour or for something a child has done or achieved. On the other hand, when praise is given just to boost a child’s self-esteem without any reason or sincere appreciation, praise can actually cause more harm than good. Here are 7 ways the wrong kind of praise can harm your child and what you can do instead:
1. When you praise talent and ability instead of effort: A study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998 and authored by world-class psychologists, Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck, concluded on the basis of six studies that praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance.
When a child gets labelled as ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ or ‘talented’, she becomes afraid of trying new things or taking on new challenges. She fears that if she fails, she will suddenly be viewed as not being ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ or ‘talented’ anymore.
When you praise your child for the effort he has put in, it tells him you are aware of what he has done and you appreciate it. It gives him the courage and confidence to try again.
Praising talent: Telling Sara in the example above: “You are really intelligent Sara. I couldn’t have asked for a better child.”
Praising effort: “You have worked so hard for this. You must be so pleased.”
2. When you praise excessively: Too much praise (either too frequent or exaggerated with respect to the achievement or traits) can be unhealthy. Praising your child every day for getting ready for school on time is unnecessary. It is good that your child is getting ready on time every single day and she certainly deserves the occasional pat on the back, but you don’t need to praise her every single time for that. If you praise too frequently:
Praising a habit: Praising a five-year-old for something he does every day: “You are such a good boy. You brushed your teeth without being told.” If something has become a habit, it need not be praised.
Appreciating a special behaviour: Praising a toddler for being surprisingly cooperative at bedtime: “You got ready for bed super-fast today. Give me a high-five. Now, that gives us time for an extra story tonight.”
3. When you link love to performance: When you link your love or your happiness to a child’s performance or achievement, this can challenge a child’s belief that her parents love her unconditionally. A child becomes anxious and fearful that you may not love her if she does not perform as well next time. Children who are more confident of unconditional parental love are more likely to better respond to challenges.
Linking praise to love: “You topped in the science exam. I am so happy. I love you.”
Praise not linked to your feelings: “You topped in the science exam. You have been well rewarded for all the hard work you put in. I am so happy for you.”
4. When you show a lack of interest: When you offer words of praise without really taking an interest in what the child has done, the child senses your indifference and empty words of praise. She only feels unappreciated.
Showing lack of interest: In the situation above, Gemma’s mother, says “Nice job!” without even looking at what she has built. Her mother is not paying attention to her child while praising her. The child tends to see this as indifference towards her or what she has done. This can be very demotivating.
Showing interest: Gemma’s mother could take a break from her cooking (or whatever else she is absorbed in). She could look at her child and at what she has done and say: “I see you have built a really tall tower. Isn’t that exciting?”
5. When you praise to counter your child’s disappointment: Your child may be disappointed and upset for not achieving what he set out to do – losing a sports game, not being able to draw as he wants, scoring low marks and so on. In a bid to save a child from feeling down, you may offer words of praise – ‘You are smart, you just made some mistakes this time’ or ‘You draw like an artist’ and so on. While you may think you are lending a supporting shoulder to your child, your child will not believe what you are saying if he feels he doesn’t deserve the praise.
Not wanting to upset child: In the situation above, William’s father doesn’t want to see his child disappointed or upset for losing a game. So he tells William that he “played like a champ” when both of them know that isn’t true.
Empathising and supporting: William's father could first empathise with his feelings: “I know it’s disappointing.” Then he can offer words of support, “Remember, there’s always the next time. Let’s figure out how you can do better next time.”
6. When you criticise while giving praise: Sometimes, parents tend to criticise while offering praise. They feel it’s important to let the child know, yes she has done well, but she can still do better. This use of ‘buts’ dilutes the praise and makes it ineffective.
Criticising while praising: “I am glad you scored 95%. But, what happened to the 5%?
Avoid the but’s: “You can be proud of your 95%. This calls for a family celebration.”
7. When you indulge in comparisons: While praising your child, don’t compare your child to a sibling or friend. He may come to believe that being better than others is more important than enjoying the task on hand. Children who are accustomed to comparative praise become poor losers. Also, research has shown that their intrinsic motivation is lower than children who receive praise for having mastered a task.
Praising with comparison: “You have made a beautiful painting. You are even better at art than your friend Ron.”
Appreciating the task: “You have made a beautiful painting. I see how much you have improved in using watercolours.”
To understand the psychology of praise, we reach out to Dr. Jim Taylor, an internationally recognized expert on the psychology of sport and parenting.
Here are excerpts from an engaging conversation:
Q. When can praise harm a child?
A. Praise can harm a child when it is inconsistent with reality (“You are the best on your team!” when they’re not). Second, praising ability (“You are so talented!”) can be harmful. Third, praising children only when they are successful is not advisable.
What is the most common praise you hear parents (and teachers and coaches) giving children at home, on the playground, in class, and on the sports fields? “Good job!” and other variants such as “Way to go,” “Nice job,” and “That’s great”. Such praise is both lazy and worthless.
The reason: the purpose of praise is to encourage children to continue to engage in positive behaviours that produce positive outcomes. However, “Good job!” lacks specificity – it doesn't tell children what precisely they did well and without that information, they can’t know exactly what they should do in the future to get the same outcome.
Q. How can a child be motivated to perform better with the right kind of praise?
A. This can be done by praising effort. Parents should help children praise themselves, so they don’t become dependent on others for motivation. Praising persistence in the face of mistakes and failures will also motivate children to continue striving to reach their goals.
With young children, you don’t need to praise them at all. The best thing you can do is simply highlight what they did. For example, if your toddler just climbed a playground ladder for the first time, just say, “You climbed that ladder by yourself.” Their smile of pride will tell you that they have got the message.
As another alternative to praise, just ask your children questions to find out what they thought and felt about their achievement. Enable them to reward themselves for their own good actions and encourage them to internalize what they observed about their own efforts.
I will leave you with this picture: A pre-schooler is jumping enthusiastically on the living room couch saying: “Look at how high I can jump!” And, his father, who is reading the newspaper, absentmindedly responds: “Good job!” Of course, the fate of the couch has been swiftly determined by those two words!
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