“That’s beautiful, honey! I love it.”
“You are such a great artist!”
Don’t we want our kids to have positive self-esteem? So, complimenting them is a good thing, right? That depends.
Self-esteem is a funny thing. We can’t make our kids feel good about themselves by showering them with praise. In fact, that has the potential to actually do just the opposite.
In the first place, when we over-praise our children, it sends a message that they can’t trust us to be honest. If kids do a lousy job on something, they know it. If we say it is great just to make them feel better, it just makes them feel worse.
Additionally, when we over-praise, we rob them of the motivation to try harder. Why keep working if mom and dad say that what I did was great?
Kids need challenges to make them feel good about themselves. They need to feel the experience of working hard to accomplish something and the pride that goes along with it. That is what increases their self-esteem.
So, as a parent, what types of praise works best?
First, it needs to be honest. Kids will appreciate it if you give them honest feedback. If it is not their best work, encourage them to go back and improve it or ask them to evaluate it. Now, let’s be clear here –we are judging honestly based on developmental ability and effort. If your three-year-old works hard on something and does a good job for him, praise is certainly appropriate, even if doesn’t quite look like the horse that he saw at the farm that day.
Second, praise is most effective if it is specific. “That’s great!” doesn’t go nearly as far as “You did a really nice job today of including your sister in your playdate. It made her feel really special and makes me proud that you are so considerate.” Kids love it when you notice. My daughter tries her hardest to hide the smile when I point something out that she has done well. It never works.
When praise is effective, kids know that it is deserved. They know that they have worked hard and done well. And when praise is deserved, it feels really good. And that is motivation to work even harder.