First, let’s discuss reasons to avoid the extremes… Praise has benefits, so not praising means your children are losing out on a very effective positive and motivating tool. An article a couple years ago in New York Magazine described some of the benefits of praise, including its effectiveness at encouraging specific behaviors to happen more often. On the other hand, praising too much, especially for things that are not under your child’s control, is not good for your kids. It increases our children’s dependence on us. More importantly, and more detrimentally, it can actually discourage effort in your kids’ behavior. So how can you hone your praise so that it works for you?
1. Don’t praise attributes like intelligence. Research by Mueller and Dweck (1999) has found that when you praising attributes may have more negative consequences on achievement than praising effort. Kids praised for intelligence enjoy what they are doing less, give up when things are difficult, and don’t enjoy the tasks as much when they are able to complete them. Instead, praise the effort your child puts into the tasks. Praise hard work. When your child wants to give up because something is hard, encourage them to keep trying. This will actually teach your kids that hard work and challenge are goals worth achieving on their own, regardless of the consequences.
2. Try to get the words “good work” or “nice job” out of your vocabulary. This praise is non-specific, so it doesn’t really have a lot of benefit in terms of teaching. However, it does raise the possibility of our kids becoming overly dependent on these nice words to value themselves. Some even say it makes our kids overly dependent on us as parents for their view of themselves. In an effort to raise well-adjusted, happy kids, we want them to see the value in what they do for themselves.
3. Try to trade some of your ‘good work’ praises for descriptions of behaviors. Point out the happy expression on a friend’s face because your child invited them to play. Point out how clean the kitchen is because your child loaded the dishwasher, or how much faster chores go when everyone works together.
Changing how you praise can feel awkward at first. Don’t give up! Keep reminding yourself to make the changes, and set mini-goals for yourself. For example: Today, I am going to praise my daughter’s effort three times. I am going to stop myself from praising ability one time. The more you try, the more natural it feels. As time goes on, you will see the payoff.