First things first
Before we start on the topic of how to praise children, let’s make one thing clear. Any form of praise is better (or at least, less dangerous) than criticism.
Far more damage has been done to kids from overly critical parents than will ever be caused by too much praise. So if you are prone to focusing on your children’s faults and tend to be overly critical, then maybe go and work on that one first.
However, for those parents of the ‘glass-half-full’ variety, who view their little cherubs through rose coloured glasses, then you may be interested to learn that too much of the wrong type of praise can also potentially damage our kids.
What a minefield right?
Types of praise
Broadly speaking, there are three types of praise.
1. General praise
This is the most common form of praise many children will receive. It comes in the form of sweeping positive statements such as: “Great work!” “Good job!” “Well done!” or “Awesome!”.
2. Personal Praise
This type of praise focuses on the child’s personal qualities, talents or traits. For example, if they score a goal, you might say “You are an awesome soccer player” or if they get 100% in a maths test, “You are so smart”.
Telling a child they are ‘handsome’ or ‘pretty’ are also examples of personal praise.
Personal praise tends to focus on characteristics the child was born with, rather than things they have control over.
3. Process Praise (or effort praise)
This type of praise focuses on the child’s effort and praises the process they used to achieve a result.
Continuing with the same examples, for your soccer-playing child you might say “Well done scoring the goal, you positioned yourself well to receive the pass and kept your concentration while you took the kick.” And for the maths student, you might say “You studied hard for that test and you even did some extra homework, which really paid off!”
Get the idea? You are focussing on the process they used rather than the result they achieved.
What does the research tell us?
Firstly, there is some research that suggests too much generic praise can reduce motivation in children and turn them into praise junkies. Critics also claim it leaves kids confused because it offers no feedback as to how they can replicate the results in the future.
Meanwhile, Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset, has done a huge body of research into how praise can influence whether kids develop a ‘fixed mindset’ (the belief that talent alone dictates results) or a ‘growth mindset’ (the belief that results are linked to effort).
Dweck’s main finding and recommendation is that process praise cultivates a growth mindset, whereas personal praise can lead to a fixed mindset.
The theory is that kids who receive process praise develop a belief that their results are tied to effort. This means they take responsibility and are more likely to develop resilience and grit. When these kids are faced with setbacks, they adopt the attitude that by working harder and continuing to practise they can improve at anything.
On the other hand, children who receive personal praise develop a belief that success is linked to ability and talent, which they see as fixed traits. This means they are less likely to bounce back from setbacks and much quicker to drop their head and conclude they just aren’t good enough. After all, if talent is fixed, what’s the point of trying harder? You’ve either got it or you don’t according to a fixed mindset.
“Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow—but only for the moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.”Dr Carol Dweck
So, does this mean we should never provide personal praise?
Well, no. That can be dangerous too, according to Dr Lea Waters, who’s done an equally impressive body of research on the topic of Strength-Based Parenting.
Strength-Based Parenting helps kids achieve greater success and happiness by identifying and developing their unique personal strengths. But it’s hard for them to identify their strengths if they are only ever praised for their effort.
Water’s recommendation is that parents engage in what she calls Strength-Based Praise.
“Strengths-Based-Praise combines the best of both worlds by connecting a child with his strengths (person-praise) and then praising him for how he uses those strengths (process-praise)”Dr Lea Waters
For example: “You used your athletic ability (strength) to kick that goal today, but you also applied a positive attitude and trained hard (process)”. Or “You have good analytical skills (strength) and you studied hard for the exam (process) which is why you got a great score.”
Where does this leave us as parents?
Like most things in parenting, your natural instincts are usually the best place to start. Every kid is different and some will respond differently to different types of praise. But, by being aware of the pros and cons of each type of praise, we are better placed to dish out the right sort of compliment at the right time.
Personally, I like Lea Waters’ approach. A little from column A and a little from column B.
However, I’d go one step further and say we can use all three types of praise to ensure a varied diet of compliments for our kids. It’s a bit like making a cocktail and as parents, we need to be expert mixologists.
Bear with me here, while I run with this analogy for a moment.
How to make a praise martini
Start with some generic praise. It’s simple to do and comes naturally to most parents. Whilst it doesn’t provide feedback, a regular flow of ‘well done’, ‘great job’ and ‘high five’ is an easy way to give positive reinforcement and encouragement to kids. It helps remind them that we love them and are on their team. So in my opinion, there is no harm in that. It probably forms a good base ingredient, but it’s not enough on its own.
Next, throw in a small dash of personal praise to help kids develop their identity and understand their unique strengths. But choose your personal praise carefully. You should be praising things they can control and attributes that are helpful to themselves and others.
Character traits like compassion, discipline or creativity are great strengths to praise, whereas too much focus on athletic ability, physical appearance or intelligence may cause problems down the track.
And finally, you need a good strong serving of process praise to encourage effort, foster resilience and develop a growth mindset in your children. With process praise, you need to be specific and focus on progress. Compare how they are doing against themselves, not others. And never ever compare them to their siblings!
So, the martini mix probably looks something like this: 2 parts generic-praise, 1 part personal-praise and 3 parts process-praise.
And if you are going to criticize
And for those who were wondering how to deliver constructive criticism without shattering your kids’ confidence and destroying their lives forever, well guess what, it’s the same concept, but even more black and white.
You should only criticize the process (e.g. “you could have tried harder, concentrated more or done something different”) and never criticize the person (“you are lazy, uncoordinated, not smart, not creative”).
If you want your kids to have a growth mindset, never tell them they can’t do something. People with a growth mindset believe anything is possible with hard work and persistence.
So rather than thinking they can’t do something, help them realise they just can’t do it YET!