A Word (or Two) on Praise

Being the mother of two preschool age children, I have an abundance of artwork in my home. Everyday my kids are coming home with new projects into which poured their blood, sweat and tears. What I find even more challenging than finding places to keep them all, is the internal dialogue I often experience when trying to figure out the best way to encourage my potential budding artistes. The truth is I’m usually impressed: “Wow! That does look just like Grandpa!” While the therapist in me cautions, “Be careful you don’t want her to think everything she does is a masterpiece. She might grow up and not know how to deal with failure.”

The recent article in the Atlantic “How to Land Your Kids in Therapy” by Lori Gottlieb, raised some provocative points including some of the potential pitfalls of overindulging our kids, praise included. Recent parenting research is showing that when we are too eager with praise, we end up reinforcing unintended messages. Instead of feeling empowered and accomplished, kids actually begin to feel anxious and depressed. But wait, all is not lost! This research is also including great information on how to praise better and more effectively. Turns out, praise itself isn’t the problem. It’s how we praise that matters.

Be Descriptive: Effective praise boosts self-esteem, motivation and independence. Evaluative praise — what I like to call “blanket” praise, such as: Good Job! Awesome! You are so smart! ” etc., fosters a dependence on our approval instead of fostering an internal ability to encourage and self evaluate. It is more effective to be specific about what you appreciate, like or simply notice about your child’s effort. Instead of saying, “that’s beautiful!” the next time your child brings home a work of art try, “I noticed you used a lot of different colors in this drawing,” or “It seems like you spent a lot of time on the details.” Instead of saying “good job” after your child picks up her toys without you having to ask try “I noticed you picked up your toys and I didn’t even have to ask. Thank you.”

If you are anything like me this “new” type of praise doesn’t always come all that naturally. We live in a society that is, overall, pretty obsessed with outcome over effort. And sometimes the pride and adoration I feel for my kids takes over. But I have found the joy I see in their eyes when they feel their own sense of accomplishment far outweighs the joy either one of us feels when I distractedly utter a “good job.”

Be Genuine: No one likes feeling that praise isn’t honest especially when we’ve put in lots of effort. Kids are no different. A well intentioned “wow, you are amazing” when your child placed last just makes her/him feel like they’ve lost touch with reality or you weren’t paying attention. It’s ok to be honest. That’s not to say you go towards the negative, “wow you suck.” A more genuine comment could be, “that seemed really challenging for you, how do you feel about it?” This can go further in building connection between you and your child, helping them feel heard and seen, and open the door for improvement without shame.

The truth is kids don’t do amazing things everyday. They, and we, actually do quite ordinary expected things most of the time. But isn’t that what makes great accomplishments and successes feel so great? If we are always at the top, it’s really hard to see where else we can go.

For some additional praise-ing and parenting tips, check out some of these helpful and quick easy to read blogs that not only helped me write this article, but parent (and help parents) everyday:

http://calmerparenting.blogspot.com/ 

http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/ 

http://tinabryson.com/ 

And the online article Praise That Builds a Child’s Self-Esteem from the University of Minnesota Extension: http://bit.ly/dZRnf

Robin Starkey Harpster, MA is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC 41937) and Coordinator of the Programs for New and Young Families at theInstitute for Girls’ Development in Pasadena, CA. Robin can be reached directly by email at rharpstermft@instituteforgirlsdevelopment.com. Follow her on Twitterrharpstermft

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