How to Praise With a Purpose: Stop Telling Your Kids How Awesome They Are and Prepare Them for the Real World

While sorting through my teaching materials from the 1990's, I came upon a handout with suggestions for praising children called: 86 Ways to Say “Very Good!” Since it got safely tucked in my file cabinet, I must have thought it was worth keeping all those years ago. But, in light of recent research about praising children, I knew it was now time to dump it.

It turns out all 86 suggestions are contrary to what experts now recommend when complimenting children. The often-heard superlatives listed on the handout – superb, terrific, marvelous, tremendous, perfect, and sensational – do little or nothing to motivate children. Other suggestions -- “I'm so proud of the way you worked today” and “That kind of work makes me very happy” – also fail because they focus on the parents' emotions, not the child's. 

So what are effective ways to praise our children, making them more confident, independent, and willing to take on challenges? Here are some suggestions based on the latest research:
  • Emphasize effort: “I see how hard you worked on that science project. You should really feel good about it”...”You studied so long for that test. Give yourself a break and take a bike ride”...”Your hard work and thoughtful planning really shows on this essay.”
  • Describe the behavior but don't judge: Parents tend to overdo it with over-the-top compliments such as: “That's the best painting ever” and “I couldn't have done it better myself.” This excessive praise often seems phony and condescending to kids. Studies show it's more motivating when moms and dads simply notice and mention positive behaviors: “You cleaned your room all by yourself”...”You took out the garbage without me reminding you”...You filled the gas tank after borrowing my car.”
  • Notice improvement: “Last year division gave you headaches and now it's a breeze!”...”Your free throws have gotten so much better. All that practice paid off!”
  • Don't compare: Children don't like to get compared to others, even when their parents put them head and shoulders above the crowd. Kids want to feel unique so compliment them on what makes them different: “This essay really shows your appreciation for nature”...”That green dress really looks beautiful with your red hair”...”I like how you always put a smiley face on your suns.”
  • Show unconditional love but limit the praise. Employers today complain that young workers need too many compliments, too much hand-holding, and too much cuddling. They're unprepared for the real world where praise gets handled out sparingly. Wise parents give their children all the love in the world but don't handicap them by giving too many kudos.

This Book Shows You How to Make Praise Meaningful and Parenting Easier

As busy parents, we often go for the quick and easy answers and that's why the superlative amazing gets so overused. This book helped me become a more thoughtful mom – not just surviving each day with the kids but keeping in mind my long-range goal of turning them into happy, confident, and responsible adults. The chapter on descriptive praise helped me realize that my compliments were meaningless and not at all motivating. When I began to notice and mention positive behaviors, my boys did them more often. It was a simple change that made a huge difference in our daily lives.

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