Remember the days when your preschooler showed you every last drop of paint he splattered on paper so you could rave about it? And when you could talk your kindergartner into playing soccer just by telling her how awesome she was? Well, the times they are a-changin'.
"When kids get to be 7 and 8, they transition from being overly optimistic about their abilities to being realistic," explains Jennifer Henderlong Corpus, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon. "They're beginning to know what they are capable of, how good they are at it, how they measure up to their classmates, and when the praise their parents give them rings true." A sign of this: Your kid may start brushing off your genuine kudos with "You have to say that -- you're my mom."
How do you articulate your praise so that it meshes with your child's savvy new stage? Increase her self-esteem by tweaking your compliments so they sound more legit to her.
Focus on Improvement
Canned "This is the most creative art project in the class."
Credible "Your art project is even more detailed than last time."
Emphasizing improvement will keep your kid motivated when his work doesn't receive the top grade in class or get picked to be displayed on the school bulletin board. If your kid did, in fact, get the highest mark, still resist comparing his grade with his classmates'. Chances are, there will be times when your child doesn't do as well as his peers, and not hearing the usual "You're the best!" may make him sulk.
Emphasize the Effort
Canned "I'm proud you didn't get anything wrong on the spelling test."
Credible "I see you worked hard on memorizing the spelling words."
Acknowledge the process your child went through to reach her goal -- not just the end result. This will help her feel good not only about what she's done, but what she's capable of doing again. "By praising a child's effort, you help her to be confident about taking on new challenges," says Carol Dweck, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Stanford University, in California. It also instills resilience, which will come in handy when the going gets rough -- for example, when she doesn't get the part she wanted in the school musical or when she's expected to memorize all the multiplication tables.
Be Understated But Sincere
Canned "You're a great big brother."
Credible "That's pretty good how you helped Lila put her toys away."
"Kids this age trust understated praise more than overstated praise," says Harvey Karp, M.D., Parents advisor and creator of the DVD and book The Happiest Toddler on the Block. That's because over-the-top enthusiasm can feel manipulative, whereas low-key praise seems more honest and sincere. Another tactic that works: "Gossip" praise. Suppose you're talking to your mom on the phone when your son walks in from the backyard and starts his homework. Quietly tell your mom, "Jason got right to work on his homework." Make it loud enough so he can just overhear you. "If your son comes back with an "I heard that," you know you've done it right. "It's a curious phenomenon, but people believe things they overhear more than things that are told to them," says Dr. Karp.
Spotlight Specific Achievements
Canned "Terrific job selling all those Girl Scout Cookies!"
Credible "It was smart to smile and look customers in the eye when you asked them to buy the cookies."
Specific praise seems more legit to kids than a blanket statement. "Plus it helps a kid understand what she did right and what future strategies would be useful," says Dr. Corpus. Dana Kramer uses this tactic during Scrabble games with her son Andrew, 8. "I'll say things like, 'That was clever how you put the "J" down on the Triple Letter Score in the middle of two Double Word Scores,'" she notes.
Take Time to React
Canned "It's so exciting that you won a ribbon at the science fair."
Credible "Hmmm. Would you like to tell me about this ribbon?"
Instead of reacting right away, allow your child to evaluate and appreciate his own work; it lays the foundation for building self-esteem. "When you rush in with praise, it can derail your child's introspection." says Brad Sachs, Ph.D., family therapist in Columbia, Maryland, and author of The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and Be Perfectly Satisfied. What's more, Dr. Sachs says being quick to praise may create anxiety in a child because he feels that he always has to perform at a high level. Instead, offer praise after your child has a chance to explain his accomplishment.
Canned "I'm incredibly proud of your school book report."
Credible "You must be so proud of your school book report."
While your opinion still matters to your child, she's developing her own sense of accomplishment. During this phase, turn the tables with your praise. Explains Dr. Corpus: "You'll be supporting her emerging autonomy and helping her feel responsible for her achievements."
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Parents magazine.