We all want our children to grow up to be self-motivated, the kind of person willing and able to discover what they want in life and work hard to achieve it. But sometimes it can be hard to see how we, as parents, should be acting to create an environment that allows for children to develop in this way. One of the central elements of this environment is showing our children that we love and support them.
That can be difficult. In particular, if you grew up in a household that did not encourage explicit displays of affection or in a dynamic where the words “I love you” weren’t regularly in your vocabulary, it can be hard to start including them. But it is important that when you praise your child, unconditional love and support is the basis for your comments. Praise is not effective unless it is perceived to be genuine, something we’ll look at shortly. And research has found that genuine praise “seems to address an important human desire to seek the approval of others.”
Praise Should Be Process-Oriented
As adults, we’re often told to focus on results. Employees are encouraged to describe themselves or their office as “results-oriented,” and results are what other adults look for in assessing our performance. However, when praising children, we should not focus on their results.
It’s very natural to want to say to your child - “Good job! You got first place!” But this is dangerous because it creates motivation to achieve, not necessarily to put forth effort. This distinction seems semantic, but we can understand it better through an example: A child who derives their self-value from being a high-achiever or a “perfect student,” will do everything in their power to keep that status. This can be a good thing - it can encourage that student to study hard and achieve a good grade. But sometimes it can also encourage them to avoid risks - perhaps taking the safe route to an easy A on a project rather than trying something new and challenging. The former student may get a better grade, but the latter student will learn more from the assignment. Over time, a student who is more focused on the process (learning) than on the result (a grade) will be more confident, competent, and become a stronger learner and person.
So, when praising your child, be sure to focus on the process. Say “you did a great job preparing for that competition!” or “I’m really proud that you came up with such a creative topic for your presentation!” By praising the process, you will encourage the student to continue working hard and pushing their limits. This also makes students more resistant to disappointment - even if they receive a bad grade, they will continue to follow the process you have praised and perform better in the future! They will see failure as an opportunity to learn rather than setback.
Praise Should Be Unconditional
Children need to feel loved and supported in order to grow as learners and as people. That is why it is important that praise given to children not be seen as contingent upon good behavior or future achievement. In short, the value of the praise should not depend on anything else the student should or may do. It seems natural to tell a student “great job! As long as you keep up, you’ll do really well in class!” But this kind of praise does not encourage a student to develop a growth mindset - it only creates a new, future result that the student has to measure their abilities against.
Instead, you should focus first on praising the action that your child has already taken - tell them that you are proud of them and make them understand that you will not become less proud of them if they fail to achieve a goal in the future. Once your child has this kind of emotional stability, they will feel safer to risk failure in the future by pushing themselves beyond their current limits - the exact behavior we are hoping to encourage!
Praise Should Be Genuine
However, praise like this has to come from genuine pride in the child. If children feel that the praise is disproportionate (excessive praise for a small action) or if it is strategic (done only to encourage behavior, not from real feeling), then they will not receive the same emotional and developmental benefits as they would from genuine praise. So the most important thing is to be honest with your child about how you feel - that you love them and support them.
But what if you’re concerned that you don’t know how to genuinely express these feelings? Well, here are two rules of thumb for determining if your praise will be received as genuine:
Praise Should Be Specific
Children should be able to easily make the connection between the praise that they are receiving and the reason for that praise. If they can make this connection, it will help them to see that they deserve to be praised and that the comment is coming from genuine pride or happiness with their actions. As a result, it’s best to praise children for specific things they have done - not general characteristics.
This also helps to avoid a situation where children may feel that they only deserve praise because they are “smart” or “good” or “a winner” and that losing these traits will make them undeserving. This leads to the same situation we discussed before, where a child may choose not to take a risk or push their limits in a way that will result in growth because they are afraid of failing and losing their status as “smart” or similar.
Praise Should Be Spontaneous
Children understand when they are being praised in a way that is too performative. If you tell your child they’re amazing after every single test, even if their test grades are just okay, they will soon understand that this praise is not genuine. So, when looking for opportunities to praise your child, be spontaneous! Instead of praising them after each test, instead praise them after each great test score and when they help around the house. The goal here is not to praise your child less, but to praise a variety of behaviors as appropriate.
As much as we may want to do everything for our children, we can’t. The best thing we can do for them is to prepare them to take active control over their own lives and responsibility for their own growth. Finding appropriate opportunities for genuine praise is a great way to create a learning environment that encourages children to become self-motivated. Praise does this by creating a safe environment, which makes children feel secure enough to explore, try new things, and sometimes fail. All of these, including and especially failure, are important for cultivating long-term growth. So as parents, our job is to create an environment that enables children to go out and find these experiences.
We hope you learned something and will try out some of these tips for praising with your own children! Feel free to check out this post which details some examples of good ways to praise and gives some do’s and don’ts for each aspect of giving praise. And if you’re interested in furthering your children's developing social and organizational skills, we would encourage you to sign up for our Deep Thinking class this summer and during the school year! These aspects of thinking and personality are incredibly important for young children, especially. But schools usually do not offer classes specifically organized to teach them. That is why our team of Harvard educators constructed our Deep Thinking curriculum for students grades 3 - 8, to help them develop these skills. Join us this summer and start your child’s journey of learning how to learn!