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How to Praise Kids?

“Good girl” and “Clever boy”? Research shows that this way to praise kids might do more harm than good. 

Using descriptive praise and showing appreciation instead helps to empower kids to be the best they can be.

mom showing appreciation for sons helpYou can find more communication pictures here:

Why Not so Good?:
"good girl", "clever boy", "you’re so talented" and the like...

These are typical examples of evaluative praise. They are expressions of opinion, presented as if they where facts. Unfortunately they don’t motivate well and don’t empower kids or build self esteem. 

Why that?

  1. They are not very precise. What does a "good girl" stand for? Being quiet? Helping out? Not dropping something? Your child wouldn’t know what behaviour to repeat in order to stay a "good girl".

  2. They are judgemental. Your daughter might not think she’s talented. She might know other kids that can run faster, jump higher or throw the ball further. So your well intended “you’re so talented” could make her think more along the lines: “I’m not talented at all. What does mum know?” Tearing on motivation, self confidence and your relationship.

  3. They can stop your child from even trying new or challenging things. Why? To praise kids for smartness, cleverness or talent often neglects the effort it takes to get there. They appear to be character traits. In order to retain the status of the “clever boy” for example, kids often stop doing things that could make them appear less clever.

The Better Way 
Descriptive Praise

In order to praise kids descriptively you need to know what exactly you like about your child’s behaviour or achievement. That will take some more effort at first, but the good thing is, over time it will turn into a habit and you’ll notice more things your kids are actually good at. At the same time you’re a positive role model and your kids start finding good things not only about themselves, but about you as well. You might get thanked for making dinner or helping out much more often.

How to praise kids descriptively?
  1. Actively look for things that are done right and stick to the facts.
    (“Wow, look how clean your teeth are now. You really made sure you reached every single one – even those all the way in the back.”)

  2. Praise effort and little improvements and achievements just as well. It might be too long to wait for the big milestones.

  3. If you give your opinion, make sure you make clear that it’s your opinion.
    (“I like the way you drew this princess. You added some important detail like the crown, and the golden ball and the little frog with the crown. I can tell she’s the frog princess. I think you’re very talented.”)

  4. Don’t praise things that are too trivial. So if your daughter has drawn hundreds of frog princesses already or your son is used to brush his teeth very thoroughly every night, don’t praise that as if it was for the first time. Keep an eye open to how your kids react to your praise to see if that’s the case.

  5. A good time to incorporate descriptive praise into the day is just before bed. You both can reflect what you liked about the day and be thankful for it. This way you child falls asleep feeling good about himself and you might get some ideas for activities you could do more often.

  6. Be cautious about praise followed by “BUT” and something that needs improvement. No matter how many good things you praise first, it’s the critique after the “but” that is usually remembered. In this case everything else is forgotten really quickly as the mind regards it as “not so important” or “can’t be that true”.

Praising your kids like that might seem unnatural to you at first. Of course it does. We’re not used to describe things that go well. Things that go wrong are far more obvious. One way to get a better feeling for descriptive praise is to put it in the context of genuine appreciation.

Even Better 
Showing Appreciation More Generally

Genuine appreciation involves honouring your kids for what they are and where they are at. It involves being aware of how unique and wonderful they are. It’s recognition of their self without comparison.

Showing appreciation is easier in the form of gratitude. To praise your kids is one way of doing that. You can also do that by showing recognition like a little thank you’s or humility.

Another way of showing appreciation is through respect which involves your care, concern, fair treatment and courtesy. This opens up a whole array of ways you can show your children that they are special and you love them:

  • little thank you’s spoken or written,
  • appreciating hugs,
  • recognizing looks,
  • little things that show you think of them,
  • ...

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Check out the great ideas on these pages:
how to be patient
ideas for stress relief
baby + child development stages

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