Praising Kids Effectively 

There are so many different parenting styles out there  that it’s often confusing to figure out which one you’d like to adopt for your family. Throw in the very vocal proponents and opponents of such styles and you have a perfect recipe for emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed parents.

Instead of advocating for one specific parenting theory, I want to focus on several behavioral techniques and tips I’ve found useful in my work with children and their parents during therapy and behavior coaching. These are easy to implement – and you won’t have to worry if you’re adhering to an entire theory of parenting!

Today’s tip addresses how we praise our kiddos. When you first hear the word “praise”, you may think of a parent congratulating a child on making a goal at a soccer game or getting an A on a school project. These are great opportunities for your child to hear words of praise from you and also provide a setting for kids to reap the following benefits of praise (among many others!):

  1. Builds self-esteem – when you praise a child, they gain confidence in their abilities and become more willing to explore new things
  2. Strengthens parent-child relationship – you become attuned to your child’s experience and she/he in turn feels understood and loved by you.

The tricky thing with praise is that if overdone or insincere  it has the potential (key word: potential ) to be ineffective at best and harmful at worst. More specifically, we’re talking about generic/non-specific, overused, and automatic responses like “good job”, and “you’re awesome”, etc.  So how can it be ineffective?

  1. If praise is given out excessively, especially for things that don’t really require praise, a child can eventually tune it out and it will loose it’s meaning. This can become an issue when a child has a big accomplishment and hears the same repetitive praise. It may cause their achievement to be downplayed or feel less important than the child feels it is.
  2. On the other hand, if praise is used excessively, a child may come to expect it of everything they do! What a let down this will be when they inevitably grow up and stop receiving it everywhere they go. Alternatively, the expectation of praise can cause kids and teens to avoid activities in which they think the praise won’t come (i.e. Where they perceive they are more likely to fail).
  3. Another issue presents itself when a kid’s motivation shifts from being internal to coming from praise. Sure, it’s fine if our kids do things once in awhile to receive praise from us, but eventually we want them to develop the internal motivation that will carry them to try new things on their own, without approval or praise from others being the driving force of their actions.

At this point you may be thinking “I need to stop praising my child!”. Fear not! You should praise your child as often as you’d like! I do encourage you, however, to use the following tips to make your praise more effective and rewarding.

  1. Be sincere: Your little ones can tell when you are faking being interested. Try getting to eye-level (or keep eye contact, if your teen is taller than you!), and even follow words of praise with a pat on the back or affectionate hug. It’s also easier to be genuine when you’re not doling out “good jobs” for everything/mundane things that don’t require praise.
  2. Be specific: one of the biggest tips is to be detailed about what it is you’re praising. It’s better to offer a “you worked extra hard at your math homework and it paid off” or “I really appreciate your help clearing the table” than a generic “great job”. Again, this helps your child feel understood by you and reinforces the positive behavior you’re addressing.
  3. Praise the action more than the end result or the person. Praise is more effective as far as helping a child build confidence in his/her abilities when it praises their effort. For example, if your child ends up not getting a satisfactory grade on their math homework, they can still be praised for their hard work and effort. They will be more likely to continue putting forth the effort when they encounter challenges and try harder next time. When the person is praised (i.e. You’re so smart), instead of their effort, there’s potential for the child to feel crushed when the end result is not an A on their homework, and feel as if this is  a reflection of their being (i.e. I must be stupid/not smart).

As with every parenting tip we’ll explore on the blog, there are caveats here. First, when a child is beginning to learn mundane everyday tasks (think jumping, feeding themselves, or tying their shoes), it’s ok to give praise. Once they’ve mastered these tasks, you can step off the praise accordingly (i.e. don’t praise a tween every time they tie their shoes, they’re not really achieving anything). Second, you and only you know your child’s temperament and personality. Some children, especially younger ones, can get overwhelmed when praised and don’t know how to react; so sometimes a simple “great job” is the way to go. Parenting is confusing sometimes (all the time!), isn’t it?  The thing is, (I’ll go ahead and give YOU some praise now), you know your child and their needs better than anyone. Your sleepless nights, constant worry, and self-less efforts to raise your child(ren) are making you into a stronger, wiser parent that is constantly evolving to better attend to their needs. So good job, you got this!

Let us know in the comments if you think these tips would work for your children and if you have any examples of how you praise them!

Thanks for reading!



3 thoughts on “Praising Kids Effectively 

  1. Thanks for the article, especially #3. I’ve been struggling with how to praise effort, when my knee jerk reaction is to praise the end result. The way you put it made so much sense; just use the verb to praise, instead of the noun.


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