As counterintuitive as it may seem, praise is not always a good thing. In fact, one study suggests, that too much praise can contribute to kids becoming narcissists.  I am not going to discuss that study; however, if what this post reveals is not convincing, you might want to read it.  (Brad Bushman, Ohio State University)

Many parents praise kids for doing the basics… going to bed, brushing their teeth, finishing their milk!  These routine accomplishments may make your life easier, but eventually they probably should go by without much praise.  If these are areas that are still being mastered, by all means, go for it; but be specific. “You are really trying hard to brush your teeth properly.  They look sparkly and white.”  The praise extends to the effort the child put forth in trying to do it properly.  Praise should be doled out proportionately to the amount of effort expended by the child.  In the early months and years of babyhood, there will be a lot of “look at you crawling, wow!” when learning to crawl, walk, talk and all the other developmental stages that require baby’s physical and mental effort.  In other words, the bottom line should be ’praise the effort and not the outcome’.  Praise the persistence and resilience, praise the child’s ability to move on from failures or mistakes and try, try again.  Even if your child’s performance was less than perfect, the effort was stunning!  Effort is the key ingredient for success on the path to adulthood.  Focus on the challenges of the game, the effort made to win…but not the winning itself.  Here are some recommended tips on giving quality praise:

  • Be Specific.  Don’t just say, “Good Job” rather help them know what they are doing well.  “You are really working hard to climb those stairs; soon you’ll be able to go up all by yourself.”
  • Really mean it!  If you’re impressed, say so but be genuine; kids can tell the difference.  The less you do it, the more it means.  
  • Let them overhear the praise.  Praise doesn’t always have to be given directly.  Sometimes it means more if they hear daddy telling mommy, “Nathan brushed his teeth so nicely before bed.  Just like the dentist said, he brushed in front…”
  • Trying something new.  It could be food, learning to ride a tricycle, or learning to swim.  Praising how hard they’re trying as opposed to their mastery keeps them engaged even when the going gets tough (or it tastes bad!)
  • Avoid overpraising fixed attributes.  Telling kids “you’re so smart” can give a clear message that their accomplishments are a result of being smart rather than their continual effort to be smart.  Focusing on “you’re so gifted or so handsome”, quickly begins to lost its authenticity if it is overused.

The bottom line for raising self-confident, courageous and resilient kids is to focus on the game itself, how it was played and not the fact that it was won.  That’s the best path for helping our kids really be winners!

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