The definition of praise is ‘the expression of approval or admiration for someone or something’. We use praise with our children because we believe it will make them feel good, help to raise their self-esteem and encourage them to develop positive behaviours and characteristics. In this blog I’m going to talk about how to praise your child, how praise has been used in the past and what recent research says is the most effective way to use praise, what type of praise to avoid and why.
There has been a school of thought for a while now that to raise children with a healthy self-esteem we need to smother them with praise and tell them they are great all day long. The thinking was that we could literally ‘fill our children up’ with self-esteem by using praise such as ‘good boy’, ‘’I’m so proud of you for getting an ‘A’, ‘I like the way you did that’ at any given opportunity, even for things that took little or no effort or they are already intrinsically motivated to do. But self esteem can’t just be given and studies now show that lavishing our children in praise, for things they already enjoy doing or have taken little effort, can actually cause a reduction in intrinsic motivation and build an over inflated self-esteem.
The latest research shows that the best type of praise to use with our children is what I will refer to as descriptive praise or encouragement which develops children that have a realistic, healthy sense of self and are intrinsically motivated as opposed to evaluative praise which develops children that are hooked on receiving the approval of others and rewards and are extrinsically motivated.
Studies show that there are many problems with evaluative praise. Firstly it focuses on the outcomes, the ‘good girl’, the ‘A’ and it is external, meaning that it is your judgement that she is good, that she is intelligent and worthy of the praise. When we do too much of this it builds children who are reliant on the approval of others. We want our children to build self-motivation to be satisfied by their own accomplishment to build internal motivation for wanting to do something really well. We can do this by using descriptive praise or encouragement.
When using descriptive praise describe your child’s behaviour and then label it, for example, ‘You shared a toy with your brother’ (describing the behaviour), ‘that was thoughtful’ (thoughtful is the label). ‘You tidied up your room the first time I asked, that was helpful’, describe what you see and then label it. Kind, helpful, thoughtful and creative are all types of behaviour that can be labelled. When we do this our children start to take on these descriptors as their own. They start to see themselves as those things and actually start to do more behaviours that fulfill those characteristics.
Other things to remember when using descriptive praise to help make it really effective:
When you are using praise it can be useful to think about the following:
Experts say that the quality of praise is more important than the quantity. When thinking about how to praise your child, focus on giving praise that is sincere, genuine and comment on the behaviour not the outcome. Notice when your children are trying really hard and displaying the behaviours you want to encourage and use descriptive praise whenever you see this.
Sticker charts and rewards teach children to do for the reward rather than for the joy in learning and accomplishing. They perpetuate the reliance on the external, do for the sticker, for the prize, rather than for the learning a new skill and getting better.
Some studies have proved that offering excessive external rewards for an already internally rewarding behaviour can lead to a reduction in intrinsic motivation, this is known as the overjustification effect. In one study, for example, children who were rewarded for playing with a toy they had already shown an interest in playing with became less interested in the item after being externally rewarded.
In some situations however children simply have no internal desire to engage in an activity. If used sparingly extrinsic motivators (rewards) can be a useful tool. For example, extrinsic motivation can be used to get children to complete a work task in which they have no internal interest, or to change a behaviour that, however much you try, they seem to show absolutely no sign in wanting to change.
By using descriptive praise you will be teaching your children to self evaluate, to think for themselves and grow internal motivation all of which are hugely important in developing a healthy self-esteem.