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How to praise tykes

The right (and wrong) way to cheer on your preschooler or kindergartner.

By GreatSchools Staff

You tell your child she’s a “genius” after she’s finished a puzzle. You proclaim your son’s the “most brilliant painter since Picasso” when he proudly hands you his watercolor. 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 an ugly witch!”), 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 just figured out how to read a new street sign.
Praising the accomplishment: “You’re so smart! That’s amazing that you figured it out on your own.”
Praising the effort: “You’ve been really paying attention to the street signs. Isn’t it great to learn so many of them? Let’s see if we can find another one together.”

The situation: Without you asking, your kid got her socks and shoes on and comes right down to breakfast.
Praising the accomplishment: “You got your socks and shoes on! What a good girl.”
Praising the effort: “You found socks to match and got your shoes on without any help. That was a lot to do on your own.”

The situation: Your child has built an elaborate block city.
Praising the accomplishment: “Wow! That’s the most amazing block structure I’ve ever seen! You’re going to be a world-famous architect.”
Praising the effort: “Look at how many blocks are in your city! I can tell you worked really hard on it, but it must have been a lot of fun to build.”

The situation: You’re taking your child to a family get-together. He or she has bathed, combed their hair, and gotten dressed in their best outfit.
Praising the accomplishment: “You are the most handsome boy I’ve ever seen in my life!” or “You are the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen in my life!”
Praising the effort: “I know you don’t always like having your hair washed. But now that you’ve made such an effort to get all cleaned up and put your nicest outfit on, you sure do look fancy and ready to go to the party!”

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

07/19/2010:
"As a social worker in a school, and a parent of two grown children, I have learned that the best self esteem builder is to let the child own their accomplishments, as well as their own curiosity. You can never go wrong by asking them, 'What do you think?' 'How did you do that?' 'How do you feel about that?' or 'Tell me about your project?'. When we praise their accomplishments we are making them dependent on the opinions of others for their self esteem."
05/19/2010:
"Isn't it amazing that it takes tons of research to figure out what a previous generation already knew. Common sense wins out every time."
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