How to Praise Your Kids

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Praise is a tricky thing, because at first glance it seems so easy. You say “Attaboy,” or “Awesome job,” give a pat on the back, and everything’s great, right?

Uh, wrong.

Science is showing us that when it comes to praise, kids operate like light switches. Certain types of praise switch kids on by boosting their motivation and willingness to take risks. Other kind of praise switch kids off.

There are lots of interesting experiments here (many by Carol Dweck), but here’s the takeaway: avoid praising for abilities, and instead praise for effort.

Here’s why: when you praise for ability — that is, when tell someone they’re a natural-born Einstein, or a Mini-Michael Jordan — they unconsciously tend to protect that status by taking fewer risks and forgoing opportunities to make more effort. (After all, we’re status-based creatures — why risk genius status?) When you praise for effort, on the other hand, studies show that kids are willing to take on harder tasks without complaint, and perform better.

The problem, however, is that we parents and coaches seem to be hard-wired to praise in exactly the wrong way. We instinctively praise ability and status. When a kid shows us their latest magic-marker drawing, we say, “What a great artist you are!”  When a kid does his first trick on a snowboard, we say, “Hey, you’re little Shawn White!”

The key to effective praise is to focus on the process, not the person. Put the emphasis on what was produced, not on the kid. This sounds sort of chilly, but the effect is actually the opposite. For instance:

  • So, instead of saying, “Wow! You’re such a great artist!”
  • Say: “I love that picture! Tell me about it.”
  • Instead of, “You’re an awesome snowboarder!”
  • Say: “That was great! How’d you figure out how to do that?”
  • Instead of, “Another A-plus! You’re so brilliant at math!”
  • Say: “Another A-plus! You must’ve really studied hard for that test.”

See what I mean? Instead of just being a cheerleader (You’re so awesome!), use praise to go a notch deeper: to start conversations, spark reflection, and create more of a bond.

In the search for effective praise, the best example I’ve ever come across consists of just two words: Well done!

You don’t need to rehash the accomplishment, or elevate the kid to superstar status. All you need to do it be present, and to show that you saw what they did, appreciate it.

Well done.

What other phrases work for you?


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9 Responses to “How to Praise Your Kids”

  1. Einar says:

    More details according to this; Carol Dwecks “Mindset” – a brilliant book.

  2. bnail says:

    I second the book, “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. Package that with the info from “Talent Code” and you have some serious good information for how to coach, teach, and parent effectively.

  3. I’ve read similar studies about how kids respond to praise, as you said, the most effective praise recognizes the effort. I like to use “Nice work” with my 2 year old son, and even with other students of mine. It simply recognizes the hard work that was put into accomplishing something – every step on the path to mastery counts!

  4. djcoyle says:

    I like that — Nice work. Makes it feel like the kid’s got a lunchbucket and a construction helmet — which, in a way, they do!

  5. Michael says:

    Dweck’s work is the standard. I like “good effort” or “love the effort.” I also like to praise the ability to focus and make good decisions.

  6. Brian says:

    Along those lines, I recently read a post on Seth Godin’s blog concerning congratulating someone on an accomplishment. He wrote, “Congratulations” is fine for winning the lottery, but “well deserved” is reserved for people who put in the effort and the time and took the risk to get somewhere.”

    If another team beats my team in a closely contested match I like to tell them that their victory was well-deserved rather then just congratulating them for winning or saying “good game”.

    Thanks to Michael, I now have a new catch phrase during the match…”Love the effort!”.

  7. Tony Kees says:

    These are all great.
    I often use “love the enthusiasm”.
    Talking it up during intense, repetitive work helps stimulate and motivate.

  8. On a related note, telling your teenage daughter she’s beautiful is likely to get an eye roll — after the first time, at least.

    Much better to say, “Wow. I would’ve never thought to pair that top with those pants, but it really makes your eyeliner pop.”

    You’re praising the effort she puts into her appearance — and perhaps more importantly, you haven’t bored her to death yet again.

  9. Kai Gilb says:

    Nonviolent Communication NVC (a communication method) has some deep and interesting thoughts about praising, or rather they suggest to never praise. Check them out for their excellent arguments. What they suggest instead is to express your own feelings and to celebrate life together.

    instead of “good work on that drawing” they would suggest something like
    “that drawing brings back sweet happy memories from my own childhood”

    Im not sure the NVC experts would agree I got it right, but that is my understanding and what I’m doing.

    PS Thanks for an excellent blog. Im reading through it for ideas on how to improve as a teacher/coach and parent.

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