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Using Praise & Encouragement Effectively

Dear Elizabeth,
I’ve recently heard that there can be such a thing as too much praise. If this is true, what’s the best way to encourage my son?
Jennifer Saldivar
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • Praise kids for efforts & not just inherent talents
  • Give specific feedback
  • Encourage self-motivation by replacing “I” messages with “you” messages
Expert Advice
Ann Corwin
Ann Corwin
Ph.D., M. Ed.
There is an ineffective way to use praise and encouragement. If praise is either insincere or done so often that the child cannot differentiate between being and doing then they risk not trusting themselves or expecting praise for everything without any effort.

Praise comes before encouragement. For example, if you say to your child, “You are so good at riding your bike,” this is praise. When you follow that up with, “I bet you can ride even further if you keep your hands on the handle bars,” this is encouragement. Encouragement is the teachable moment of praise and encouragement.

Is there such a thing as too much praise?
Not necessarily. If praise is done in concrete terms, meaning the child understands in clear, concise and specific words that their parents approve of the way they behave or what they accomplish. If kids hear all the time, no matter what, that they are “good,” then it is very difficult for them to recognize their own real accomplishments. It could cause them to stop trying or not value themselves when they do accomplish something great.

Different Types of Praise
It is important to make the distinction between praise for “being” versus praise for effort. Knowing that my parents or my care provider appreciates me for who I am is crucial to healthy child development. But if a child is praised for just “being,” then they have the tendency to choose easier tasks and get distressed by their failures. They think just by “being” – and not by doing any effort – that they should get praise. They have more anxiety about doing well all the time, instead of focusing on the process of trying.

If you appreciate a child’s effort or attempts to do a task for themselves, then they have a tendency to choose harder tasks and are less likely to get discouraged along the way.

Both children’s inherent talents and hard work need to be recognized. If children are praised for just being who they are inherently that tells them that they will always be accepted no matter how they behave. It’s called unconditional love. Praising children for trying their best to accomplish tasks gives them incentive and drive to continue to strive for their best and it teaches them how to feel pride.

Be Specific When Encouraging Children
If you think about it logically, if anyone gets praise without understanding why, it can be confusing. In order for children to be able to associate what they did, with approval from their parents, they need to know exactly what to do again. With every behavior that a child does comes some sort of response from their parent or care provider. Being specific helps kids put two and two together by saying to themselves, “Every time I say ‘please,’ my parent always gives me a high five and smiles.” The child will say “please” over and over again to get that encouragement from their parent.

Use “You” Messages Instead of “I” Messages
When praising a child, say, “You did that all by yourself” instead of saying, “I like the way you did that.” A “you” message teaches children to have pride in themselves and to own who they are and they learn what they can do for themselves. When kids are born, they are totally dependent upon their parents for everything, including feeling good about themselves. At about two years of age, they begin to want to know who they are and what makes them different from everybody else. With this drive for autonomy, the child needs to hear “you did it all by yourself” instead of “do it to make mommy and daddy proud.”

The bottom line is this: raising kids is all about education. The more information we have about how our kids grow and develop, then the better parents we’ll be. There is a big cognitive shift in kids when they go from doing things to make their parents proud, to doing things to be proud of themselves. If they never learn to do this, they’ll never learn why they’re unique, special and different from others.
Child Care Provider Comments
Julie Nguyen
Julie Nguyen
Mother of three
Being a mother of three, I’m aware that every child has his or her own strengths. I encourage my kids to try new things and explore. I don’t want them to just identify themselves with one thing. If they find that they don’t do so well in one area or with one activity, then I praise them for trying and I encourage them to try something else.
Fred Hodge
Fred Hodge
Grandfather of five
We praise our grandchildren’s efforts so that everyone has equal praise and can fulfill their potential. For example, my granddaughter doesn’t have the strength or ability to throw the ball as well as her brothers, but I encourage her to try and even help her out. Just because she doesn’t have the same ability as her brothers doesn’t mean she shouldn’t try.
Karolina Ramirez
Karolina Ramirez
Child care provider for 6 years
It’s about giving the proper praise and encouragement for the right reasons. When a child completes a task, instead of saying, “Good job,” you can say, “ You shared your toy,” or “You cleaned up.” Instead of saying, “How beautiful,” you can say, “Tell me about your art work.” You have to take the child’s feelings and efforts into consideration. It’s important not to give praise that focuses on the end product, but that instead focuses on the effort.

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Using Praise & Encouragement Effectively
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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