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“I don’t praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do. I praise them when they do something really difficult — like sharing a toy or showing patience. I also think it is important to say “thank you”. When I’m slow in getting a snack for a child, or slow to help them and they have been patient, I thank them. But I wouldn’t praise a child who is playing or reading”, this is an excerpt from a study done by a psychoanalyst and University College London professor Stephen Grosz, who interviewed a mother while studying “How praise can cause a loss of confidence”.
A number of studies on self-esteem have come to the conclusion that praising a child as ‘clever’ may not help her at school. In fact, it might cause her to under-perform. Often a child will react to praise by quitting — why make a new drawing if you have already made ‘the best’? Or a child may simply repeat the same work — why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way always gets applause?
Admiring children may temporarily lift a parents’ self-esteem by signaling to those around what fantastic parents they are and what terrific kids they have — but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from earlier generation parents, today’s generation parents are actually doing much the same thing — doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism.
Reflecting on the child’s work helps build the child’s confidence by way of indicating he is worthy of the observer’s thoughts and attention whereas a sentence of praise would instill a feeling in the child that the activity itself is worthless unless it’s a means to obtaining praise.
Why do we praise our children? The most common answers would be: to make them feel good about themselves, to encourage them, to motivate them. While these answers may sound appropriate, we as parents need to re-examine how we praise our children and whether that praise is creating the positive outcome that we want.
First, let’s examine the most common kind of praise that we hand out: “Good Job”, “Well done”, “Great” etc. While this kind of praise may give a temporary feeling of happiness, they are ambiguous to the extent that do not give out any valuable information to the child. Let me explain: while “Good job” may tell a child that she has done something well and her parents are pleased, it does not give her enough information as to what exactly went well, and this in turn does not give her any good reference points or learnings for future actions.
So how can we praise in a more meaningful way which would have maximum impact?
1. BE SPECIFIC IN YOUR PRAISE: Tell the child clearly what is good. Example; “Beautiful drawing. I love your selection of colours”, or “I noticed how patiently you explained the game to your sister”.
2. PRAISE THE EFFORT: Draw attention to what they did and not just the results. Example; “Great marks in maths. All the evenings that you spent learning tables have helped” or “I can see that you are working really hard to improve your forehand” or “I can see that you have been revising your lessons, you have got 20 out of 25”.
3. PRAISE THE THINKING: Focus on how the child thought the problem through, and not just their cleverness or intelligence. Example; “I like how you have structured this essay”. “That’s an interesting idea.”
4. PRAISING SIBLINGs: Example; It was good to see you playing all afternoon with each other. I really appreciate it.
Effective praising becomes easier with practice. Remember not to overdo “praise” or “force it”. Praise should always be genuine.
It is interesting to see how parents' dialogues become an inner voice for the child. Many cultures discourage ‘self-praise’ and consider it to be an act of ‘arrogance’. This is being reflected in the fairy tales as well where the villain is shown to praise himself and the hero of the story is shown humble who speaks through his good actions only, that too for others.
I, believe that self-praise is important and should not be considered as an act of arrogance. Like self-criticism, self-worth is also a feedback to self. If we train ourselves and our children to look and praise the positives in oneself then the swing from passive to aggressive styles of communication may get balanced in the form of assertiveness.
Over a cup of tea or family lunch one can always share what s/he liked about oneself in a particular situation. This would prevent one from the dependence on others for an approval or praise. It would help a child to build a stronger and a much stable identity if she is able to see herself in the light of genuine self-praise.