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How to praise young children

The right (and wrong) way to cheer on your first- or second-grader.

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 finished reading a new chapter book.
Praising the accomplishment: “You’re so smart! Before you know it, you’re going to be reading the encyclopedia.”
Praising the effort: “Wow! That’s the first chapter book you’ve read on your own. Let’s go to the library and see if we can find more chapter books 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: “I really appreciate that you cleaned up your room. I can see it took a lot of work to put all your clothes and toys away.”

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 building this. 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

10/27/2011:
"I think this is somewhat related to the whole issue concerning every kid gets a trophy which was started years ago. We are not being sincere with our kids. It puts a false sense of accomplishment in their head. I never got trophies or ribbons unless I truly placed or earned them. I realized that some kids were better and I was fine with that. It just made me try harder. "
05/24/2010:
"I dont think it is because of praising him why he is failing.I would talk to him first and find out what is going on in his mind. he may not like that school and want to go back to his old school. he may not want to hurt your feeling as his mother.please pray to God about this problem because only God and your son know what is going on in side his brian. I wish you both God favor. I hope and pray that things get better."
05/17/2010:
" I think this article is very important. And I think, it's better just to be sincere with what we say, and be condescending with our children´s feeling, if that is what it is important to us. The accomplishment, I think, doesn't have to be so over-elaborated. Just point to the reality in a positive way, a way they can learn from their efforts and work, or their qualities, and make them better or progressive in time and lasting."
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