We all know that criticism kills confidence. That voice in our heads scolding us for that silly error or telling us that always say the wrong thing makes us feel miserable and worthless.
As parents, we know that we don’t want our children to hear the same voice and so we rightly move away from criticism, and instead seek to praise them to bolster their self-worth and self-esteem.
Because if we keep praising them, they’ll feel good about themselves and confident in their own abilities, right?
Er… no, not really.
Praise is great – obviously… but scattered too liberally, it can actually be counter-productive. Many young adults (Generation Z), are currently grappling with depression and low-self-esteem. Brought up on lashings of praise, they struggle as they start out at the bottom of the ladder in a workplace that is not interested in doling out congratulations for the simplest of everyday tasks.
We’ve all scoffed at the primary school sports day where everyone gets a sticker for turning up. Yes, it’s sweet, and lovely and it’s great that we don’t have to deal with quite so many tears if our little one isn’t a natural egg and spoon champion… but as much as we’d like it to be different, we know that life doesn’t work like that.
Praise is great – but it needs to be meaningful and relevant. Liberally scattered phrases like “good job” or “awesome” can actually be confusing for children who might grow up feeling that they don’t need to do anything to be praised.
So, to help you navigate this maze, here’s a run-down of our best guidelines on how to use praise in a way that provides a solid foundation of confidence for your child.
1. Be sincere. Don’t give praise for the sake of it. Your kids are tuned in – they’ll see through any well-meaning lies and the upshot is that they simply won’t trust you. Give praise when it’s deserved – and give it immediately. Don’t wait. If you like what you see – tell them. It should be, and feel, spontaneous.
2. Praise something specific. If your child draws a picture – don’t just say “Amazing! You’re a great artist”. Pick out something that you specifically like or can refer to – “I love the way you used all those different colours” or “gosh, what a lot of detail you put into that flower”. It helps them to understand why they are being praised and gives them something to build on.
3. This is particularly important if you are praising a behaviour (which is definitely something to be encouraged). “Your room looks so clean and tidy. Thank you for clearing up” is far more powerful than “that’s great – well done”. Your kid is far more likely to repeat the behaviour up if they know that you appreciate it.
4. And however tempting – avoid the sting in the tail! “Thank you for clearing up your room. It looks great! Well done!… Now why can’t you keep it like that?”. It can be tempting to add that dig at the end. After all, it’s true! If they’d only just learn to put things away, you wouldn’t all have to go through the nagging and arguing that tends to lead up to a good room clean… but trust me, that criticism is the only bit that they’ll remember… and they’ll be far less likely to clean up again.
5. Equally, don’t use praise in a way that’s manipulative or controlling. “Well done, I’m sure you’ll do even better next time” just deflates the success. Keep it short, simple and positive and your child is far more likely to build on that achievement.
6. Don’t compare – especially not with their peers! “Great – keep that up and you’ll soon be able to run as quickly as Daisy (or heaven forbid, a sibling)” is asking for trouble. Allow them to enjoy their improvement for their own sake and do things in their own way. Don’t make it a competition.
7. Praise effort not ability. No, not everyone will come first at everything but there is a lot to be said for just turning up and trying – that is often far more praise-worthy than offering praise to someone who displays a natural ability. In fact, a child who is praised for ability may well end up feeling helpless in areas that they are not so gifted. So, aim for – “You’ve worked really hard on that science project. I can see how much thought has gone into it.” In doing so, you are encouraging resilience, even when the outcome may not be as successful as your child would like.
8. Equally, don’t wait for perfection. Small wins, whether in effort or achievement should be celebrated. A child who ties an imperfect bow, or one who remembers the first verse of a poem both deserve those little achievements to be acknowledged – and don’t forget, they are all stepping-stones to the desired result.
Praise is about celebrating the little things in life… and we could all do with more of that….