Being a parent isn't easy. Should you only buy organic food? Do you let fussy babies self-soothe? Do you trust your young adult to handle all the paperwork for college admission? There are so many studies about the long-term effects of seemingly harmless things that it can create a lot of stress for the conscientious caregiver.
Giving productive praise is not a skill that comes naturally to most people. You love your children and want them to know you're proud of them, and any type of praise is likely to accomplish that. Not all praise has exactly the same effect, though. There is a particular type of praise that helps children remain motivated and challenges them to grow.
Demonstrate a Growth Mindset
Having a growth mindset has become a popular educational tool in recent years. Research shows that children learn more readily when they are praised according to the process instead of their abilities. For example, children in Dweck's early studies were given puzzles to complete. When they finished, one group was praised for being smart while the other was praised for working hard. As they chose their next puzzle, the children who received praise for the effort they made were more likely to pick a more challenging puzzle to strengthen their skills whereas the children who were labeled smart stayed in the comfort zone of what they already knew they could accomplish.
Teachers and parents who want to foster a growth mindset in children can learn how to use this method without digressing into false praise. If children fail to complete a task, don't just offer an empty "Nice try!" Instead, focus on the specific things they did well. If more instruction is needed, offer suggestions for how they can improve next time. By concentrating on the process, you are taking the focus off whether or not they can do the task and redirecting it to how they are going to succeed.
Show Sincerity and Specificity
Children are perceptive. They know when they are being coddled, and they understand when you are giving praise on autopilot. Almost everyone has used generic phrases that, while communicating a positive message, don't give a lot of useful information:
- "Good job today!"
- "Nice work!"
- "That looks great!"
There's nothing inherently wrong with these statements; they are still an acknowledgment of appreciation. If the goal, however, is to help children learn and grow, they occasionally need more than general feedback that could apply to almost anyone. Point out the new method they tried, and share specific observations about how it worked better than previous attempts. If something they do makes your day easier, let them know exactly how it helps you. Detailed praise reinforces desired behavior and encourages the search for other ways to grow.
Some people thrive when in competition with others. They not only want to challenge themselves but also enjoy exceeding the records others have set. That's not necessarily what motivates everyone, though.
When you want to offer children constructive praise, it's best to avoid comparing them to others. Even if you are pointing out how much better they perform, it communicates that an external standard of accomplishment is more important than their own personal progress. This can lead them to seek out only competitions they know they can win or become overly discouraged whenever they inevitably lose. Instead, focus on their improvements.
You love your children, and you want to raise them to be kind, responsible adults. There are so many choices available when it comes to parenting well, and the more you learn, the more you are able to find what works best for your children. Focusing praise on things they can change rather than personal characteristics is likely to result in children who are not afraid to challenge themselves and learn how to set high but reasonable goals.