Authored by Caraline McDonnell, Program Assistant at The Center for Effective Therapy
On TikTok, social media, and maybe even in your community, you will hear people express that praising your children can backfire. They might say that praising your kids can make them become self-involved, can encourage perfectionism and performance anxiety, and can decrease motivation. What they will not tell you, is that the type of praise you are giving truly does matter.
“You were perfect!” You say to your child after their soccer game, “You were the best player out there!”
Giving your child praise for playing well in the game comes naturally when they have done a great job out on the field, and it's bound to make your kid smile. Your soccer star knows that you're watching them play, and that you're proud of them! Even so, there are ways to make your praise stronger to encourage confidence, work ethic, and specific positive behaviors.
Let’s take a closer look at the praise that you just gave:
“You were perfect!” is praising a specific outcome of the activity, and to the extreme. Even though this is said as an encouragement, sometimes this type of praise isn’t as effective as we want it to be. Perfection is a lot to live up to! In the 90s, Dr. Carol Dweck and colleagues researched the impact of “person-centered” praise. Through their studies, they discovered that children felt pressured to live up to their parent’s praise, which in turn could lead to panic and anxiety. Even those who didn't have anxiety became less likely to take risks out of fear of disappointing their parents. This kind of praise was shown to shift the focus of an activity from the enjoyment of the child to the approval of the parents.
“You were the best player out there!” Said through the lens of a loving parent, this sounds really encouraging. But when you think about it, the phrase communicates that your approval is based on your child being better than their peers. If they take this comment literally, using social comparison as praise can create an unnecessary sense of competition between kids as they attempt to live up to the praise.
The downfall of the praises that we gave are that they don’t specifically tell your child what it is that you liked about their playing. Instead of learning through specific encouragement and feedback, your soccer star might feel the intense pressure to be the “best” player, and to be “perfect,” whenever they step out on the field.
To encourage growth, you can provide more effective praise by focusing on specific child behaviors through labeled praise. Here are some tips:
Giving your child “labeled praises” can help them recognize exactly what behaviors you are encouraging, and it will still be met with enthusiasm! Dr. Carol Dweck and her colleagues researched the impact of praising children's efforts, instead of their selves. “You worked so hard,” was found to encourage confidence in their abilities and in trying new things.
You might say “You worked so hard out there on the field!”
Labeled praises can also help direct the focus to the child’s processes and encourage their development. You can praise specific skills, or behaviors, to encourage their use in the future. By complimenting their persistence out on the field, you're showing that you paid attention to what they were doing, and that you liked their ability to stick with things that are hard.
You could say “Great job passing the ball to your teammates!”
By naming the effort they made to pass to a teammate and share the ball with a friend, you are reinforcing teamwork as well.
In an article for the New York Times, Dr. Patricia Smiley, a professor of Psychological Science at Pomona College, discusses the belief that through praise, we communicate to our children what our values are. If you value encouraging independence, it can be helpful to praise what your child has control over, including the choices that they have made. Giving labeled praises of good choices can encourage the child to gain more and more confidence in making individual decisions, and it keeps what we are praising within their grasp to accomplish!
When they run off the field you could say, “Great job asking for water and a break, you’re making great choices to take care of yourself!”
Praise can absolutely be helpful for children if the type of praise is healthy and motivating. By using labeled praises and being specific in our statements, we can nurture confidence, increase motivation, and a encourage a value of hard work and effort.
Want to learn more about effective praise? Contact our Center for Effective Therapy!
Corpus, J.H., Ogle, C.M. & Love-Geiger, K.E. The Effects of Social-Comparison Versus Mastery Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation. Motiv Emot 30, 333–343 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-006-9039-4
Kamins ML, Dweck CS. Person versus process praise and criticism: implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Dev Psychol. 1999 May;35(3):835-47. doi: 10.1037//0012-1622.214.171.1245. PMID: 10380873.
Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33–52. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.199
The perils and promises of Praise EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP, Dweck, C. S.2007; 65 (2): 34-39
Underwood, Paul L. “Are You Overpraising Your Child?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Aug. 2020