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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. ”

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

06/25/2012:
"Hmmmmm... "
05/19/2010:
"I agree with this article. My 14 yr old has become lazy in her academics & I contribute that to me always telling her she is so smart, pretty and my world. I think she now thinks she doesn't have to work hard because I'll accept whatever grade she receives. She'll even say, after getting a C, I know the material I just didnt want to do it. I wish I would have approached praising her effort and her actions rather then the expected good outcome she was doing at a younger age. "
05/18/2010:
"MY SON HAS GONE FROM A's AND B's TO F's AND D's SINCE TRANSFERRING FROM A PRIVATE SCHOOL TO A PUBLIC SCHOOL. HE IS 12 AND IN 7TH GRADE. HE WAS IN A PRIVATE SCHOOL SINCE AGE 4. I UNDERSTAND THAT THE CLASS SIZE AND SOCIAL INTERRACTION CAN BE OVERWHELMING WHEN GOING FROM 9 CHILDREN PER CLASS TO 20+ CHILDREN PER CLASS, BUT THIS IS RIDICULOUS. I WANT TO GIVE HIM PRAISE FOR HIS ACHIEVEMENTS WHEN HE DOES GET THE STRAY C OR B NOW, BUT I AM AFRAID TO. IT SEEMS THAT PRAISE SEEMS TO BE LOWERING HIS DEMANDS UPON HIMSELF. I DO NOT KNOW WHAT TO DO. I HAVE MET WITH ALL OF HIS TEACHERS. I HAVE TAKEN HIM FROM ALGEBRA I TO PRE-ALGEBRA; DROPPED SPANISH, ETC. I AM GETTING NOWHERE WITH THIS. ANY ADVICE?"
05/17/2010:
"So what do you say to an 'F' to try to turn it around to an A or even a D ? Its easy to praise an A. "
05/17/2010:
"How did I ever make it to adulthood without serious mental and emotional problems? I understand where the author is coming from, but can we disect education related topics anymore than they already are? The bottom line is that everyone is wrong is one way or another,but somehow we manage to survive...."
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