No parent wakes up in the morning and thinks “I wonder what I can do today to undermine my child, destroy their desire to learn, and limit their achievement.”

But we might be doing just that. Not on purpose. In fact, we might actually think we’re helping our child when in reality, we are tearing them down.

I’m talking about praise – “You’re amazing!” “You’re smart.” “You’re so pretty.”

How you express positive feedback will impact your child’s self-esteem, performance in school, sports, etc. and their confidence. It will impact their problem solving skills, their willingness to take risks, and their motivation. It might even make them lie, cheat, and feel horrible about themselves..

Yes, praise may actually make your child feel worse which is the exact opposite of we want. Pretty crazy eh?

Let’s talk about the difference between praise and encouragement (the difference might not be obvious) and then we’ll dig into reasons.

Praise

Good girl
I like the way you did that.
You did it on the first try – amazing!
I’m so proud of you for getting an A

Praise statements place an emphasis on the person and glorifying perfection. These statements comment on who they are as a person or that you approve of something they are doing (aka you are judging them by how well they are doing). Therefore, the child’s focus for knowing right from wrong, good from bad, or how to succeed is external. They will be constantly wondering “What do others think?”

This invites children to seek approval and conform to what others want/expect. This creates a dependence on others and their self-worth will depend on what others think of them.

Praise is most commonly used on children. You wouldn’t say “Good girl. I’m so proud of you.” to your coworker. Imagine how patronizing that would feel?

Praise creates a fixed mindset. We’ll talk more about what this means later.

Encouragement

Great job
Thank you for helping
What do you think?
That A reflects your hard work

Encouragement statements place an emphasis on the deed/task and focus on effort and improvement. Therefore, the child’s focus for knowing right from wrong, good from bad, or how to succeed is internal. They will be thinking “What do I think?”

This invites children to self-evaluate and will teach them how to think (rather than what to think). They won’t need the approval of others to feel worthwhile, and they will have a greater understanding of themselves (what they think/feel and how they learn).

Encouraging statements are more commonly used with adults, and less frequently with children.

Encouragement creates a growth mindset.

Let’s dig into the research

We typically offer praise in an attempt to build up our child’s confidence, increase their self-esteem, and motivate them to do better.

However, our attempts may have the exact opposite effect.

Carol S. Dweck has researched this topic and conducted numerous experiments with fascinating results. She talks about her research in her book “Mindset, The New Psychology of Success”.

Hundreds of early adolescents were given ten problems to solve as part of a study. Some were offered praise (referred to below as praise for ability) and others were offered encouragement (praise for effort). The results were dramatically different, despite the groups starting off as equals.

Those who were praised for ability (Wow, you got 8/10 right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.) tended to reject further, more challenging tasks saying they weren’t having fun. When they attempted easier tasks, their performance decreased which means they actually did worse than when they started.

Those who were praised for effort (Wow, you got 8/10 right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.) tended to want more challenging tasks to try and said the hard ones were the most fun. They showed improving performance, despite choosing harder problems to solve.

When asked to write about the problems to other students who were going to go through the same problem solving activity and to share their score, 40% of those students praised for ability (praise) said they got a higher score than they actually did.

“What’s alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars simply by telling them they were smart.”

How is this possible?

Every word and action sends a message and tells children how to think about themselves.

When children are praised, they see their mistakes as commentary on who they are. “If success means I’m intelligent then failure means I’m dumb.”

“You learned that so quickly. You’re so smart.” translates to “If I don’t learn something quickly then I’m not smart.”

A fixed mindset is created by praise, which means that they believe they have a basic set of traits that can’t be changed.

The message when a parent gives praise is that you have permanent traits and I am judging them. Even if that judgement is positive, it makes the child afraid of losing that label. If it’s a negative judgement then they become afraid of deserving it. They won’t feel like they belong.

When children are praised for effort (encouragement), they don’t see mistakes or shortcomings as failure or think it reflects on their intelligence. They conclude that they need to apply more effort.

A growth mindset is created by encouragement, which means their basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.

The message when a parent offers encouraging statements is that you are learning and I am interested in your development.

What can we learn from this?

We need to be conscious of how we are offering positive feedback to our children.

Even if we are amazed that they just did a 100 piece puzzle all on their own, the first time, with no help and we want to applaud them and say “Wow, you did that so quickly, and all by yourself. You are amazing!” it might be better for their development and self-esteem to instead say “Wow, you finished that so quickly. We need to get you a harder puzzle.”

Sounds like a bit of a downer but stop for a moment and put yourself in thiers shoes.

If I’m hearing the first statement I feel pretty amazing at first – praise does feel good, there’s no denying that. But then if my mom gets me a harder puzzle and I don’t do it quickly or I can’t do it by myself the first time, then I guess that means I’m not amazing. I don’t want to try the harder puzzle. I’d rather do this one over and over and continue to be amazing.

But if I heard the second statement, I wouldn’t get that high that comes from being praised. I would have the inner satisfaction of finishing the puzzle on my own. It’s up to me to decide how excited I get. I could look forward to doing a harder puzzle with no fear or risk. Afterall, it wouldn’t matter if I could do it the first time or not.  

The first response is all about attention from others. The second is about self-evaluation.

Which is going to be better for building self-esteem?

Because it’s often difficult to distinguish between praise and encouragement, here are a couple of general rules.

  1. Praise comments on the person. Encouragement comments on the deed/task/action.
  2. Praise is finite. Encouragement leaves room to grow.

When in doubt ask yourself “Would I say this to an adult?”. If your answer is no, then think twice about saying it to your child.

Photo by Lotte Meijer on Unsplash