How to praise older kids

The right (and wrong) way to cheer on your tween or teen.

By GreatSchools Staff

You tell your child she’s a “genius” after she’s gotten an A on her science exam. You proclaim your son’s the “most brilliant artist since Picasso” when he hands you his most recent drawing. 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 R-rated movies 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, applauding 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 tween or teen brings home a school art project, and you respond with “You’re so talented! That sculpture is so pretty!” The result? Your child could become wary of trying hard in the future (“My next one might not be so good”), feel misunderstood (“It’s not pretty! This was supposed to represent a destroyed rainforest!”), and — kids being masters at spotting a con, even a well-meaning one — doubt your sincerity (“Come on, it’s not that good”).

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: For the first time, your child gets an A+ on a math test.
Praising the accomplishment: “You’re so smart! You’re a regular Albert Einstein.”
Praising the effort: “I know you missed going to the baseball game this weekend. But all your hard work studying for this test really paid off. ”

The situation: Without you asking, your child cleans up his room all by himself.
Praising the accomplishment: “Wow! You cleaned up your room! You’re such a great kid.”
Praising the effort: “I know you wanted to watch your program right now, but instead you cleaned your room. I appreciate all the effort you put into putting everything away.”

The situation: Your child has made you a card for your birthday.
Praising the accomplishment: “This card is so beautiful!”
Praising the effort: “I love the design on this card. You’ve done it with my favorite colors — purple and red. And what you wrote about me made me so happy. I’m going to hang it up over my desk.”

The situation: You’ve just seen a school play in which your child has a starring role.
Praising the accomplishment: “You were wonderful! You’re such a great performer.”
Praising the effort: “You were so convincing in your role. You really moved the audience. People around me were weeping when you gave your final dramatic monologue. ”