Health and Wellness: Susan Parmelee
Health and Wellness: Susan Parmelee

By Susan Parmelee

Many articles I read about praising children point out that most parents are “praise junkies.” I have to admit that a quick look on Facebook seems to confirm this; however I do not believe parents should abandon praising children-instead parents need to be mindful about how they use praise. Research supports that praising the child in place of the process risks limiting growth, leaving kids vulnerable to a fear of failure. Praising the process encourages children to try new things, to accept challenges and to develop a growth oriented mind-set. Following are some tips on praising children—it works for friends and spouses, too.

  1. Focus on the effort not the outcome. It is human instinct to stick to the activities we are good at and to avoid those that take more effort. The danger in this for youth is that they become unwilling to try more challenging activities. This may lead to the child developing negative self-thoughts like, “I am no good in math” and therefore they’re unwilling to try higher level math classes. By telling your child, “You worked very hard with your algebra tutor and now you seem to understand the assignment better,” you are praising the process, not the score on the next test. This reinforces a child’s ability to learn by trying harder and putting forth extra effort.
  2. Be specific. I read a story about a mom who when observing her daughter’s pride in tying her shoes for the first time replied, “You are so smart!” The child then proceeded to take off her shoes and retie them waiting for more glowing words of praise about her intelligence. This behavior loop might have repeated itself had the mom not then changed the statement to, “Thank you, now that you know how to tie your shoes we will get to the park much faster.” The direct comment on the benefits of mastering a new skill, pointed out the tangible results, encouraging the child’s growing independence.
  3. Be genuine. Researchers report that by age 12, children scrutinize words of praise for truth and hidden agendas. The statement, “You were so patient teaching your brother how to play that video game. It must have been hard for you to spend time with him instead of your friends,” alerts your child to the fact that you truly appreciate a sacrifice your child made for the benefit of the family. It gives a specific message about the personal qualities that you value. If you said, “Jenny, you are the nicest person I know,” she would most likely be skeptical of your statement and there is not as much of a chance that she might repeat the time spent with her brother.
  4. Instead of direct praise, try to observe and comment. When praise is handed out in generalizations—such as, “You are the best baseball player on the team,” a child may not feel inspired to keep trying to improve skills. Instead try, “You practiced catching fly-balls with dad for a whole week and then you made a catch in the outfield.” This type of praise reinforces the hard work involved in learning new skills and encourages the child to continue to master skills.

When parents praise the qualities behind successes and failures—resilience, hard-work, and perseverance—they reinforce a growth mind-set that encourages self-esteem and exploration. Praising techniques like these helps children try new things, take healthy risks and achieve goals. Yes, human beings are by nature praise junkies, but we have the ability to put this trait to good use.

For more tips on praise see WebMD and www.pbs.org/parents, “The Difference Between Praise and Encouragement.”

Susan Parmelee is a mental health social worker and one of the founders of the Wellness & Prevention Center, San Clemente. She can be reached at susan@wellnessandpreventionsanclemente.com.

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