Rather than cheering an action, motivate your child to do more
“You’re the best!”
Parents and teachers use these words to encourage positive behavior, reward and boost self-esteem. Praise can be an important part of supportive relationships and positive guidance. But when we overdo it or praise inappropriately, children may feel less motivated rather than appreciated. Here are a few ways that well-meaning comments can go wrong:
It’s well-known that too much criticism and correction can lead children to stop trying – or at least stop listening to their critics. But frequent subjective comments of any kind – “I like that!” or “Beautiful!” – can make a child feel like parents are constantly judging them and their efforts. Praise becomes the flip side of criticism. These comments may hinder creativity and curiosity, and discourage the kind of free thinking that leads to growth and development.
Children learn to depend on praise and become hesitant to present something that may not be met with approval – whether it’s a bigger, better block structure, a poem or participation in a dance try-out. The child can just stick with what he knows the adult likes, rather than risk disapproval or indifference. This hesitation can lead to what developmental experts call a fixed mindset, or an approach that looks for the fastest way to the simplest result. A person with a fixed mindset feels successful when they haven’t made any mistakes and a task feels easy.
Without challenge or growth, these individuals tend to get bored and give up when faced with a new idea. Children with a growth mindset, on the other hand, see problems through a lens of possibilities and feel smart when they have seen a problem as hard or unknown and figured it out. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University known for her work on the subject, says that studies of young children show that persistence, not intelligence, is key to success.
Without the motivation to explore and try new things, a child’s behavior may get stuck. For example, a young dancer may master a turn earlier than his friends. His proud parent says, “Wow, that’s amazing!” and, of course, invites the child to perform the turn for family, friends, the cashier at Winn-Dixie and so on. Eventually, everyone tires of the turn and the rest of the dancers move on to more complicated leaps. Without more encouraging responses to his accomplishment, this child may get discouraged and lose interest.
The need for this external approval can undermine a child’s natural intrinsic motivation to experiment and explore. Excessive praise of a small effort may make the child wonder why they need to be propped up by adults. Confidence comes from mastering new skills acquired by trying new things and learning from what doesn’t work.
So, what’s a parent to say?!
Effective praise focuses on the child or situation, rather than the action or product: “You have mastered that turn! What else are you working on?” It is descriptive, referring to what the child did or said. Instead of the vague, “You’re the best!” a better comment might be, “You helped set the table again. That’s a big help.”
This kind of praise may feel less satisfying at first. But when you see the change in behavior, you’ll be hooked. It works for teachers, too! At the art table, as soon as a teacher says, “Good job,” the child would be done – or would repeat the same action – like drawing a circle. One child might wind up with seven pieces of paper, each with one big circle. But if an adult uses more descriptive language, “You chose a lot of yellow. What’s next?” the child is more likely to re-engage and continue working on her masterpiece. Use descriptive comments and feedback, and offer a new idea or next step to encourage more effort.
Praise when praise is due
Remember, there is a place for praise. We all like to hear, “Good job!” and “You’re the best!” Just don’t stop there. Be authentic – direct your praise and attention. Give the kind of feedback that fills your child’s cup and motivates her to do more, knowing that your love is, of course, unconditional.
Jenni Watts Evans is a parent educator and assistant director at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. For more information and to learn about the parenting groups and classes available, call 504.896.9591, visit theparentingcenter.net or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for more Parenting Corner articles.