Most parents believe that praising our children builds their confidence and makes them feel secure and loved. Children DO need our encouragement and support, but praise that LABELS the child (e.g. “good” “best” “perfect”) is not helpful and can undermine confidence and self-esteem.
When we say “good girl!”, “you’re such a great artist!” or “you were so well behaved today” we are, in effect, judging or evaluating the child and their performance. This actually leads to the child feeling MORE anxious and insecure. What they hear, is that we love them BECAUSE they have been so good today. What if they are not so good tomorrow, will we still love them then?
Our well intentioned praise can leave the child with uneasy feelings, he knows inside himself that he is not always good, or clever, or brave. He must reject this praise and sometimes prove his parents wrong by behaving worse! He also surmises that Mum or Dad doesn’t really know or understand him!
This type of praise leads to the child always looking outside themselves for validation and approval. It leads to dependency on others in order to feel good about themselves. The child’s self-worth becomes CONDITIONAL, they feel good about themselves only when they do well or achieve good results, but what happens when they behave in ways we don’t like, or don’t achieve so well at school? They can be devastated.
We want our kids to be internally motivated, to do something for the joy of it, or for the satisfaction of achieving something they chose to do. Kids who receive a lot of praise end up doing things to gain approval and recognition instead. Research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something (and praise is a reward), the more they tend to lose interest in it. This kind of praise can kill motivation and creativity.
Fortunately, there are ways we can offer our encouragement that DO build the child’s confidence and self-worth.
Instead of making statements that judge the child’s character or personality, we can just DESCRIBE what the child did and how we FEEL about it. We can express our delight and admiration, we can recognise their efforts, and we can give them a realistic picture of what they did. When a child cleans up their room we can comment on how hard they worked and how good the room looks. “Your room is so clean now, it’s a pleasure to look at!”
When we do this, the child can draw a realistic conclusion about themselves. The locus of evaluation is within them, rather than external. When we say “thank you for helping me with the groceries, those bags were heavy” she draws her own conclusion that she is “helpful” or that her contribution is appreciated.
When we say “thank you for washing the car, it looks so clean, not a speck of dirt anywhere!” the child surmises “I did a good job, my work is appreciated”.
When we say “I love the colours in your painting!” they conclude for themselves that “I am creative” and “my art brings others joy”. These are the sorts of responses that will encourage a child to keep going and continue expressing their creativity.
When we say “Thanks for doing the dishes without having to be reminded” the child concludes that “I am responsible and my contribution is appreciated”.
These descriptive statements and the positive conclusions the child makes about themselves, are the building blocks of self-esteem and good mental health. What they conclude about themselves, is how they will come to think of themselves for life.
We are highlighting for the child the positive effects of their actions, and expressing our genuine appreciation, this gives them the optimistic self-belief in their competence. They feel successful. They grow taller.