How to praise your child effectively

By Michelle Fisher · 31 July, 2017

What is praise and why do we praise our children?

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.

How should we praise our children?

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.

How to give descriptive praise.

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:

  • Praise immediately, within five to ten seconds of seeing the behaviour so that your child knows exactly what behaviour you are encouraging. If this isn’t possible then praise the behaviour as soon as you are able.
  • As well as using verbal descriptive praise combine with physical praise such as hugs, kisses, and high fives.
  • Use eye contact (if your child enjoys this – some children with learning difficulties and disabilities find eye contact difficult). For many children looking at them whilst you are praising them will make the descriptive praise more effective because they will be sure the praise is directed at them.
  • Use positive body language. 55% of what we say is said with our body language. If we get down to our child’s level and face them when we are using descriptive praise and encouragement, as with eye contact, they will be sure that it is directed at them.
  • Be enthusiastic!! Lift the tone of your voice when giving descriptive praise to help your child recognise that you are commenting on their positive behaviour.
  • Model self-praise for your achievements and positive behaviours so that your child learns to speak positively about themselves.
  • Use descriptive praise that encourages realistic, attainable standards.
  • Be careful about praising children for achievements that come easily.
  • Be careful about praising children for doing what they already love to do.

How to praise your child – The differences between evaluative and descriptive praise.

When you are using praise it can be useful to think about the following:

  • Evaluative praise is judgemental. Saying “You are doing really well” is commenting on your judgement on the outcome. Instead, think descriptive and try, “You are working quietly”.
  • Evaluative praise can be vague for example “That is so pretty”. Instead try to be specific and descriptive by saying things like, “You used lots of colours, that was very creative”.
  • Evaluative praise can take away ownership of achievement from your child, for example “I’m proud of you for getting an ‘A’”. Instead help your child to recognise ownership by saying things like, “You worked hard on your homework and it shows”.
  • Evaluative praise encourages change for ‘others’ which builds extrinsic motivators. Saying “If you work harder next time you could be top of the class and I will be really pleased with you” is concentrating on how you will feel if your child behaves a certain way. It’s ok to encourage your children to work harder but try not to focus on how others will feel. We want to encourage change for ‘self’ which builds intrinsic motivation. Try saying things like “how do you think you did?” “What would you do differently next time?”
  • Evaluative praise focuses on the external, the outcome, for example “Your handwriting looks perfect”. Instead try to focus on the process or effort by making comments such as “You have been working hard on practicing your handwriting, it is looking better every week”.
  • Evaluative praise teaches what to think, for example, “Your room is very messy”. We want to help our children learn how to think, and this can be encouraged by saying things like, “What do you think of your room?”, “How can you work on that?”
  • Evaluative praise teaches reliance on others. If we make comments such as, “I’m so happy your room is so clean” this makes them look for approval, the pat on the back. Help your children develop self-reliance, by saying things like “I’m sure you can manage to clean your room”.

What is the right amount of praise to give our children?

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.

What about sticker charts and rewards? Do these do the same thing as evaluative praise?

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.

To sum up…

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.