The Psychological Benefits of Praise as a Parent

January 7, 2020
Anna Jankowska, LCPC

By Anna Jankowska, MA, CEAP, SAP, LCPC

Anna Jankowska is a mental health, addiction, and substance abuse counselor with over 17 years of experience and has specialized training and skill in working with individuals, groups and communities to improve mental health outcomes. NPI number: 1598843526

With all of the parenting classes offering advice on how to become a better parent, it can seem overwhelming and even contradictory at times to engage in all the hype surrounding how to best raise a child.

When it comes to fostering self-esteem in your child, there are many schools of thought. Some say that excessive praise is damaging, while others claim that if you praise at all you are doing children more harm than good. Brain studies reveal that we respond to praise in much the same way that we respond to external rewards. Praise feels good to many of us, and it can result in favorable outcomes.

The perils of praise

There is a perilous side to praise, however. If your praise is linked in some way to comparison to others, you could be creating a monster. A child who is consistently stacked against others and evaluated with soon learn that his or her efforts in and of themselves matter little; that they should be comparing themselves to others constantly.

Certain types of praise can teach narcissism as well. If we are consistently making efforts “all about them”, they will think of no one else when moving through life. This narcissistic behavior will soon trip them up in relationship to others.

Evaluative praise can teach children that they should stop seeking challenges for their intrinsic value. If we only praise children when they have mastered a skill, they will soon seek the easiest options for success in order to feel that praise high.

How do we incorporate healthy praise in rearing children?

There are ways to boost our child's self-esteem and set them up for long term success. Bringing out his own inner confidence and resolve to take on new challenges is a skill that will serve our child well. Follow these tips for effective praise that shapes character in a positive way:

1. Keep it objective

Resist the urge to “evaluate” constantly. Instead, focus on the behavior that you see, taking in all of the details as you go. Chances are, the more you notice about your child's efforts, the more satisfied he will be that you took the time to absorb all the details.

2. Describe his efforts

Our response to “I can't do this” should never be, “Of course you can! You just have to keep trying, you're doing so well!”. If a child disagrees with you, he will not hear your efforts to bolster their motivation to persevere. Instead, focus on objectifying their efforts with such phrases as:

  • It must be difficult to shape those letters correctly in such a small space
  • That looks hard; looks like you're getting it, though
  • Your fingers must be very strong to be able to create this work
father and daughter at table doing homework

When a child realizes that you are noticing his efforts, he is likely to persevere so he can have the satisfaction of knowing that he has succeeded. And you've just succeeded in creating intrinsic value for him–way to go, dear parent!

3. Describe progress

If you've given your child thirty minutes to clean their room and somehow, that isn't enough, don't focus on what isn't done. Why not comment on what you appreciate that has been finished? “I can see the floor! You must have picked up all of your clothes! You are so close to finishing….all that is left is to finish putting these tissues in the trash”. Appreciation will be a big motivator to help finish the job, and you both have the satisfaction of a job well done.

4. Describe your child's effect on others

Focusing your child's efforts on how he is making a difference for others will be its own motivation for continuing the desired behaviors. We all want to make a difference in the lives of others; telling your child what you notice about his positive effect on other people will motivate him to continue in a helpful direction.

It is appropriate to say nothing, at times

If we are constantly bantering back and forth, telling our children how they are doing, they have no time to develop their own inner dialogue. This positive or negative self talk will carry them through life, so it is a skill that they must master in order to move through life well. Parenting classes of today don't necessarily prioritize the importance of self-talk, but it is a critical skill to learn in order to achieve goals and create a quality life. Healthy self-esteem and positive self-talk go hand in hand; finding the delicate balance between external praise and fostering inner dialogue is your most important job, parents.

What do you say to yourself?

Children are so intuitive and so tuned in, they often can pick up on our inner dialogue and emotions before we express them. They learn from our example; what we say to ourselves and others is how they will learn to develop a relationship with themselves. Be the example that you would have liked to have had when you were a child; in doing so, you'll be setting your child up for lifelong success!

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