Can your well-intended words of praise actually be harming your child? The answer to that is “yes” and “no” depending on what words you choose, how sincere you are and how old your child is.

Complicated? Yes, it is.

One of the researchers that I like best is Carol Dweck. Dweck has spent the last 40 years studying what factors help kids succeed and fail. She wrote a book summarizing her findings called, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.”

In regard to praise, Dweck did a study where students were given an intelligence test using puzzles. One group of students was told at the end of the test, “You must be smart at this.” i.e. They were praised for their intelligence and natural ability.

The other group of students was told, “You must have worked very hard.” when they completed their test. i.e. They were praised for their effort.

Interesting things happened from there. When kids were asked whether they wanted to take an easy or a hard test next, many in the group praised for natural abilities chose the easier test. The kids were afraid that the hard test might show they weren’t really that smart. Most of the kids in the group praised for hard work, however, chose the harder test.

Then all of the kids took a test two years above their ability level and many did poorly. In the next phase, both groups were given the original test again and 30% of the “natural ability” kids did worse because their confidence had been shaken. Some even lied about how poorly they did! The group praised for effort did 30% better, however, showing persistence and using strategies that had helped them be successful earlier.

The lesson in all of this? Stop praising your kids by saying things like, “You’re so smart.” “You’re such a good athlete.” “You’re a natural at this!”

Instead, recognize the effort it took your child. i.e. “Even though that math problem was hard, you kept trying until you got it done. I noticed how you drew a picture to solve the word problem. That seemed to really help you.”

“You passed the puck over a dozen times and blocked at least five shots on goal. Great hustle out there!”

An article from the American Psychological Association called, “The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis” found that many studies on praise were constructed poorly, but offered some of the following guidance:

When praise is focused on strategies that help the child to be successful and factors that are under his/her control like effort, s/he will be more likely to persevere and gain an internal reward of pleasure from his/her efforts.

If praise is based on natural ability or if the child is praised for easy tasks, the child’s perseverance and motivation will decrease. If a child is praised for easy tasks s/he questions whether s/he has little ability.

A different set of researchers found that children over the age of seven can tell when praise is not sincere. Older children can also perceive when praise is being used to control or manipulate their behavior. Praise back-fires in both of these situations. Make sure your body language matches the words of praise, too, or the child won’t believe you.

Another slippery slope is when praise is used to compare one child to another. The most effective praise simply focuses on the effort and strategies that the child used to finish the task.

Also, try to avoid praise that is too general like “You’re such a good boy.” Apparently what happens is that the child starts to evaluate broad statements and come up with reasons s/he may not be a “good boy.” This in turn, makes the praise ring false to the child and s/he will discount it.

Another word of caution when praising girls. Due to societal pressures to please others, some praise may cause girls to be compliant and conform, which in the short-term is helpful to parents, but the long-term effect can be to discourage traits like creativity, independence and innovation.

To summarize:

Tips for Effective Praise
• Look your child in the eye.
• Be specific.
• Acknowledge the effort it took.
• Do it immediately.
• Be sincere.
• Praise the process.

Author's Bio: 

Visit to receive the free mini-course “The 7 Worst Mistakes Parents Make (and How to Avoid Them!) and find instant answers to 17 common parenting problems. Toni Schutta is a Parent Coach and Licensed Psychologist with 15 years experience helping families find solutions that work.

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