Monday, December 10, 2012

How Do You Praise Your Kids?

“Mom, look at this!”  “Hey, Dad!  Watch me!”  “See what I did?”  “Are you watching?”
If you’re anything like me, the twentieth request for notice usually warrants a vague smile and head nod.  Perhaps a mild “That’s great, sweetie!” thrown in for good measure.  I always wonder if this is part of the reason our kids constantly need affirmation.  Why are they left seeking more and more praise if we’ve just told them how much we liked what they accomplished? 
If you follow the ideas I shared last week that our kids need to be motivated intrinsically rather than extrinsically, the answer is clear: our empty praises are extrinsic in nature.  They sound good on the surface; who doesn’t want to hear that they’ve done a good job?  But empty praise leaves our kids without any ground on which to build.  They’re left trying to please the praise-makers without being given the tools to persevere when things start getting difficult.  True motivation isn’t present in empty praise. 
Besides, do we really want to produce adults who rely on constant affirmation from external sources whose opinions may or may not be helpful or valid?  Imagine an artist praising a surgeon’s technique.  “Awesome work, buddy!”  You immediately notice how little value the artist’s affirmation holds: he knows nothing about surgery, so for the surgeon to rely on the artist’s praise is pointless. 
But there are ways to offer praise with actual meaning.  Real praise can begin growing your child’s intrinsic motivation and pride in their work.  It’s done by praising attempts, effort, and work, instead of the end results. 
For instance, if the artist had said to the surgeon, “You spent twelve hours in the operating room putting all of your years of practice and knowledge to work, and now the patient will live.  That’s a true mark of dedication.”  The difference is outstanding, right?  The surgeon might be reminded with pride that the job was important.  The self-satisfaction would be rooted not in someone else’s pleasure, but in a deep sense of worth. 
That’s what our kids need too, whether it’s a toddler trying to master potty training or a preschooler writing her name for the first time.  When a child wants to be noticed, they can’t yet verbalize that it’s because they need to feel valuable and capable.  So we have to be the voice they hear until they have it all built up inside: a personal well of motivation.
Where empty praise is second nature to many of us, real praise takes thought. 
“You must be so tired after running those laps; just think of how much stronger your muscles are getting while you rest!” 
“Remember when you first began to read, you got so mad?  With all the practice you’ve been doing, you can read this whole book now!” 
“I see how hard you worked to get to the potty in time – you stopped what you were doing, and ran right down the hall!  No wet pants for you!” 
“You only fell off the bike once today!  You’re really catching your balance!”
Real praise builds our kids into people who want to be happy with their own work instead of constantly seeking affirmation from others.  It gives them internal motors to keep them on the path to success.  It helps them understand their value. 
And the cherry-on-top is that the more real praise we offer to our kids, the more we help ourselves understand their value, as well.


  1. this is wonderful - especially in the specifics! I had a friend that used to say - as we struggled to parent together - 'be careful not to major in the minors' ... to not focus on the behaviors but on the roots of their behaviors. I do think that when they're really little, we are their boundary. No is no etc. As they get older (especially as adolescence sets in) our job becomes so much more about helping them formulate their own "no's". My kids grew up in France (my daughter was 12, my son 9 when we moved back to the states) and parent participation is SO MUCH LESS over there it's hard to even compare. One thing that taught me was that I didn't need to "be at everything" my kids did - often they didn't want parents around for the very point of them NOT performing to the gauge of mommy's watchful eye. Parenting has, in my estimation, become so much about how WE are doing our jobs - and - honestly, somehow less about them. It develops in children the need to be what they think will make their parents look good to others ... not unlike what develops in the children of alcoholics. If we need outside approval and affirmation for the job we're doing as parents - then THAT is what will develop in them... Can you tell you hit on something with me? I think this is SO vital! Love what you're observing, learning and sharing!

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Adrienne! I'm feeling like I'm staring into the face of an iceberg here, and I have no idea how big the thing lying beneath the surface is. It's been incredibly eye-opening to think about these repercussions, and how our words can create such power.

  2. I offer empty praise and genuine praise. Dom is an extrovert and is always seeking affirmation. It is hard to always give the right praise, but who said parenting was easy, right? Ha! :) It is important though, to always improve. And I really love your advice. You heart is so large. I needed to read this today.


    1. I do the same thing, Alita! It's so hard to know what to say in each moment, and so handy to say the same old thing. I don't beat myself up about it by any means--these kids know they are loved!-- but I agree that the trying to improve is important. Which is hard to do, considering I know nothing about the process! I'm glad you can relate. So much parenting advice sounds like it's easy to implement every day, in every instance. And it's just not.

      We fly by the seats of our pants more often than not. It's (mostly) fun :)

  3. Right now, I'm in the midst of a muddle-brained time, without the mental energy to think through what to say, so I mumble oh it's wonderful too much. I think it was in one of the Love and Logic books that I read aout concrete praise. Instead of what a pretty picture, I like how you used red here and what a bold brush stroke.
    Somehow it's reminding me of the amazing awakening I went through when my first was 18 months and we went to a 'positive discipline' only cooperative school. I wasted in awe as the teacher redirected so well. 'Chairs are for sitting.' oh, that makes me think of what I should do instead of - no standing on the chairs! Which means I can only think about getting my feet on them. Hmmm. I think praise is the same. Finding clear, concrete positive actions shows kids the roadmap of where we'd like them to go. And finding concrete character traits - I loved how persistent you were when you kept trying to zip your zipper - well, that gives them words to describe themselves positively.

    I need to get more sleep and do more of this well thought out talking.

  4. I agree with you! I offer praise when it is due, if not than I offer encouragement. even kids can see through false praise and things like participation trophies...
    I am your newest follower..pls follow back if you can.


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?