How to praise elementary schoolers

The right (and wrong) way to cheer on your third- through fifth-grader.

By GreatSchools Staff

You tell your child she’s a “genius” after she’s gotten an A on her history paper. You proclaim your son’s the “most brilliant sculptor since Rodin” when he proudly hands you his clay art project. Does this sound anything like your parenting style? The good news is that you get big points for being your child’s number-one cheerleader. The not so good news? You might want to think again about praising your child.

Please say it isn’t so. Isn’t parenting challenging enough without being told that praise, one of the most positive things parents can do for their children, is wrong? Might as well tell us to feed our kids spicy chips for breakfast and — what the heck — let them watch cartoons until midnight.

Not all praise is created equal

Hold on. It’s not that praise itself is bad. But how we praise children can make all the difference. As Carol Dweck, a professor of developmental psychology at Stanford University, reveals in her seminal insights into praise’s power and pitfalls, praising children’s accomplishments rather than their efforts can chip away at their self-esteem and motivation — the opposite of what we want praise to do.

Say your child shows you a drawing, and you respond with “You’re so talented! That picture is so pretty!” The result? Your child could become afraid of trying hard in the future (“My next drawing might not be so good”), feel misunderstood (“It’s not pretty! I drew a hurricane!”), and — kids being masters at spotting a con, even a well-meaning one — doubt your sincerity (“Come on, it’s not that pretty”).

Try this at home

What’s a loving parent to do? Below are examples of what praising for the effort rather than the accomplishment sounds like. Studies show this kind of praise boosts confidence, so that kids treat challenges with excitement instead of fear.

The situation: Your child finishes a challenging math work sheet in less than five minutes.
Praising the accomplishment: “You’re so smart! You’re a regular Albert Einstein.”
Praising the effort: “You finished this work sheet quickly. Let’s see if we can find something harder that you’ll enjoy.”

The situation: Without you asking, your child cleans up his room all by himself.
Praising the accomplishment: “You cleaned up your room! What a good boy.”
Praising the effort: “It’s clear it took a lot of work to put all your clothes and toys away. I really love seeing such a clean room.”

The situation: Your child has painted you a coffee cup for your birthday.
Praising the accomplishment: “This cup is so beautiful!”
Praising the effort: “I can tell you spent a lot of time on this cup. And you painted it my favorite colors — purple and red. I’m going to drink from it every morning.”

The situation: Your child has a big speaking role in the school show.
Praising the accomplishment: “You were the best one in the show! You’re going to be a big star some day!”
Praising the effort: “It was so exciting seeing you up there on stage. All the time you spent memorizing your lines really paid off. You spoke with such confidence that I was convinced you were an astronaut.”