Everyone loves a good compliment, including children. But studies show that too many compliments or the wrong kind of praise can actually do more harm than good.
Educator and author Kumar Sathy discusses several examples of compliments that may sound encouraging, but are actually counterproductive. Several include: “You’re so smart!”, “You’re great at math!” and “You’re a great reader!”
Sathy notes that when a child is branded as being “great” at something, he or she puts less effort into the assignment and may even dodge more difficult tasks that include that skill in the future, so as to continue receiving praise later on.
One study conducted by the American Federation of Teachers echoed this finding. In the study, a child who was praised for being “so smart" after performing well on a test later chose an easier assignment when given the option of choosing between two exams.
However, the study also found that students who were recognized for their efforts in a more substantive way, instead of just their output, were more likely to choose the more difficult exam.
So what compliments and praises are good for your children to hear? These three praising strategies will boost children’s self-esteem while still allowing them to challenge themselves at various tasks.
Compliment them on their efforts at a task, not how well they are doing it
According to a study conducted by Carol Dweck, author and psychology professor at Stanford University, children who were praised using the phrase, “you must be smart at these problems” were shown to put in less effort afterward than children who were praised using the phrase, “you must have worked hard on these problems." Dweck finds that this kind of effort praise “fosters hardy motivation” for the future.
So instead of giving one of those compliments like, “You’re so smart!”, give praise about the amount of hard work your child has put into a task, as it will encourage him or her to continue to work hard on that task in the future.
Use descriptive words when giving a compliment
A study published in "Educational Psychology" on the effects of praise on kids found that giving children more descriptive feedback helps them identify more specifically what they are doing correctly.
An example of this could be, “I really like how you included your thesis statement at the beginning of the paper so your reader will know what you are trying to argue.”
But Jennifer Henderlong and Mark Lepper, heads of the study, noted one important caveat to this. Even when you are as descriptive and specific as possible, it is still important to keep the standards you are setting at a reasonably attainable level.
They found that when a parent uses descriptions that are unattainable, like, “I’ve never heard anyone play the guitar as well as you!," children may feel inadequate and unable to reach those high standards in the future.
Praise them when it’s really a job well done
In a 2013 article on how to properly praise children, parenting expert and psychologist Susan Newman analyzed how to build a child’s self esteem in a healthy, constructive way.
She claims that praise can be used as a tool for good if a child really earns it, as it reinforces his or her effort. Praising children for work that is either not well-done or did not take much effort can be counterproductive.
Using a phrase like, “Thank you for raking those leaves in the backyard; that was really helpful and it looks very clean and pretty now” uses specific wording and is used in a situation where they have earned the compliment.
Similarly, psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer conducted a study that found children often see praise from teachers and parents as a sign that they are struggling and are in need of additional encouragement. So instead of constant or more frequent encouragement on a variety of different activities, aim for sincerity and true authentic praise about the things that matter most.