Raising your children may seem like such an obvious and -- all things considered -- easy part of parenting. Children love to be told how wonderful they are (doesn't everyone?) and how proud we are of them. But when it comes to praise, there's more on the line than just boosting self-esteem. "A parent's job is to shape children's behavior," says Michelle Macias, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina, in Charleston, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Children consider praise a reward in itself, and praise is a way to help them learn which kinds of behaviors are acceptable, even from the earliest days." In fact, Dr. Macias has a favorite piece of parenting advice that pertains to praise: "Catch 'em being good."
She recommends that parents say ten positive things to their children for every one negative response. It's not that hard, and it doesn't have to be elaborate, says Dr. Macias, a specialist in developmental and behavioral pediatrics. She suggests that you comment on a behavior you like when you observe it. For example, when you notice your toddler entertaining herself with her blocks, simply say, "You're playing so nicely now." Here, recommended by experts, are six other ways of giving praise that will help your children become both confident and responsible.
A few years ago, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a report on a group of fifth-graders' reactions to solving math problems. Some children received praise for their intellect; others received praise for their hard work. The researchers found that praising children for their intelligence did more harm than good because it ultimately made them unable to handle failure. The children who received praise for their efforts, on the other hand, seemed to be more resilient and persistent. "Praising children for being smart is basically praising them for their given genetic endowments rather than for what they are trying to accomplish," says Shari Young Kuchenbecker, PhD, a psychologist and child development consultant in Los Angeles. "It is love of the process, a positive attitude, and the desire to improve that make children into 'can-do' kids," says Kuchenbecker, who is a spokesperson for the APA.
That's why she believes that when it comes to praising toddlers and preschoolers, it is essential to focus on the process rather than the result. For example, if your toddler loves to help you care for the family dog but sometimes makes a mess, say something like, "I know it's hard to carry the dog's water bowl without spilling, but I love the way you're trying." For your soccer-playing preschooler, try, "I like the way you follow the ball down the field." In both instances, you're praising the effort that leads to success, Kuchenbecker says, and when you do that, you can be positive even if the outcome isn't ideal. And it's okay to let them fail, she adds. "When we swoop in with our adult skills and do things for children that they can do for themselves, we undermine their sense of competence," says Kuchenbecker. Accomplishing tasks without adult help is key to a child's developing sense of self.
"How you give praise is as important or even more important than the words you use," says Mona Delahooke, PhD, a psychologist in Los Angeles. "Use a warm, nurturing tone, and make eye contact," she says, "and when it's possible, get down to their level, face to face." This kind of interaction increases a young child's confidence, explains Delahooke.
Because she has 16-month-old twins, Sarah Kearney, a Portland, Oregon, mom of three, uses this "in your face" technique often. "I always try to look directly at each child and use his or her name when I offer praise," she says. "I've been told that babies remember and comprehend more words when they hear their name, and looking the child in the eye helps me focus on him or her, which is especially important with the twins."
When it comes to praise, it's important to use language that is appropriate for your child's developmental stage. "To praise a baby, you might just coo at her when she smiles at you," says Leticia C. Lara, LCSW, a spokesperson for Zero to Three, the advocacy organization that focuses on the healthy development of infants and young children. As your children get older, "use words that reflect their experience and show understanding and empathy," says Lara. For example, if your 2-year-old is determined to put on her own socks but can't quite do it, say something like, "You're trying so hard to be a big girl and get those socks on. I can help you with that, and then you can slip your rain boots on by yourself."
Kids can't help but compare themselves to others. When Kristine Dunne, of Chicago, noticed that her younger son, Rory, now 5, would often compare himself to his older brother, Jack, and fall short -- in everything from kicking the soccer ball to creating art projects -- she made an effort to offer extra encouragement to Rory. "I would acknowledge his gripes, point out that his brother had a head start, and then just move the focus," she says. For example, "Yes, Jack kicks the ball a long way, but I've noticed that you can run really fast." Experts say this approach helps children learn that everyone has strengths, and that they are all different.
"Children thrive on attention -- it makes them feel nurtured," says Lara. When Jill White, a mom of four from Reno, Nevada, notices that her 4-year-old son, Preston, has gotten himself ready for bed without being asked, she praises him in the form of extra books at bedtime. "On the one hand, I realize it's something he has to do," says White, "but it makes my night so much smoother when I don't have to nag him that I'm happy to reward him with a few extra minutes of reading." You can also boost your child's ego simply by commenting on or describing what she's doing, which she'll perceive as a form of praise, says Lara. Say, for instance, "Thank you for brushing your teeth without being asked."
"If you praise too much, you will lose credibility," says Kuchenbecker. "You can only say 'good job' or 'I love that picture' so many times before the words don't mean anything." Whenever possible, be specific. Say, "I love the way you colored every corner of that picture," or, "What a beautiful combination of colors you chose." Descriptive compliments like these give your child an idea of why he earned your approval. And make sure that the action merits praise; children can tell the difference between hollow praise and the real thing, says Kuchenbecker, and they don't need compliments for every little thing.
Praising gives children the message that they are accepted and appreciated, agree experts, but overpraising -- "you're the best," "you're the smartest," "you're the most wonderful child" -- only sets them up for eventual disappointment. Some experts take it a step further and say that over-praising can make children feel pressured to perform and can develop in them the need to seek approval from others all the time. But if you offer frequent encouragement, and save the praise for when it really counts, your child will be more resilient and confident because of it.
Have you ever made a remark that belittles your own abilities without thinking about the message you're sending to your children? "I'm a terrible cook," you might say to a friend in passing. Or, "I have no artistic talent." The next thing you know, your child is equally critical of herself. "The way to combat this with children is to acknowledge their frustrations but then offer hope and optimism," says psychologist Mona Delahooke. "If your child says, 'I can't draw a cat,' you might say, 'Oh, that darn cat is so hard to draw. Let's try a moon now and a cat later.'" Or, if your preschooler is having trouble pedaling her tricycle, say, "Trikes are tricky! But if you keep trying, eventually you'll be able to do it."
Perseverance is key, agrees Shari Young Kuchenbecker, PhD, a psychologist and author of Raising Winners (Crown Random House). "When a child is trying something new, encouragement from you is both wonderful and essential," she says. For instance, when your preschooler is getting frustrated as she learns to tie her own shoes, you can watch and praise what she's doing right. "Good, that's how you cross those laces. I like the way you're sticking to it, even when it's hard to wrap that second lace around the first. Your fingers will get stronger and will remember it better every time." This type of encouragement boosts optimism, says Kuchenbecker. "And we know that optimism and self-esteem go hand in hand," she says.
Dana Sullivan, a writer in Reno, Nevada, is the mother of three children.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, March 2007.