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Praise that builds a child's self-esteem

In an effort to enhance their children's self-esteem, parents often use praise to recognize the efforts and accomplishments of their children. Obviously, recognizing our children's positive behavior is more likely to build self-esteem than dwelling on problems. It's important to realize that not all praise is created equal.

When praise isn't helpful

How do you react when someone:

  • Says you are a great cook?
  • Tells you how smart you are?
  • Remarks on your attractiveness?

Do you doubt the person? Deny the compliment? Feel threatened? Feel manipulated? Some people react quite negatively to praise, either becoming defiant or withdrawing. These are normal reactions to a positive judgment. You don't notice that the comment is positive, you notice that it is a judgment.

Praise like “you're great... wonderful ...marvelous” can be too much for anyone to take. It is hard to accept such extravagant praise. Did you ever notice how uncomfortable you get whenever anyone evaluates you? When someone tells you you're “good” or “pretty” or “smart” all you can think about are the times you were bad or felt ugly or did something dumb.

Children also become uncomfortable with praise that evaluates them. They often push it away. Sometimes they will deliberately misbehave to prove you wrong. For example, you tell Jason what a great artist he is and he tells you Jenny is better at drawing. Or you tell Liz she sings beautifully and she is embarrassed about your bragging.

Descriptive praise

Instead of evaluating what your child has done, it is usually better to describe it. Describe in detail exactly what your child did. Then your child, hearing the description, is likely to recognize the truth and credit herself.

The kind of praise a child can “take in” and that truly builds self-esteem comes in two parts. First, the adult describes what the child has done. (“I see you are all ready to go to the store. You picked up your toys, put on your jacket, and even turned off the light in your bedroom.”) Second, the child, after hearing his accomplishment described, praises himself. (“I know how to plan ahead and be responsible.”)

Descriptive praise is harder and takes longer, but the payoff is usually greater. Descriptive praise helps children become independent, creative thinkers and doers. They do not look to somebody else for approval. They trust themselves and their own judgment. They have enough confidence to say to themselves, “I'm satisfied,” or “I'm not satisfied,” with what I have done. They learn to make corrections or adjustments based upon their own evaluations.

Descriptive praise is unconditional love — not conditional upon your approval.

Evaluative praise creates dependency

Some praise creates dependency upon the approval of others. The evaluative praise, “You are a very generous person,” makes the child dependent on the judgment of the praiser. But the descriptive praise, “When you saw that Elliot forgot his sandwich, you gave him part of yours” gives a child a sense of her own abilities and accomplishments.

Descriptive praise lets a child evaluate herself. If you want your daughter to focus her attention more on the impact she had on Elliot, you might say something like, “Look at Elliot’s face! He looks pretty happy because you gave him something to eat when he didn’t have anything.” You can help your child see how her actions affect others.

Ask yourself, does my praise make my children more dependent upon me and my approval, or do my words help them see their strengths and give them a clearer picture of their abilities and accomplishments? The goal is to let your children feel in touch with their own powers and to be able to praise themselves. The person your child needs to please is him or herself.

Good Job! Wonderful! Great! Praise, as it is commonly practiced, is a way of making and keeping children dependent on us. It gets them to conform to our wishes. It sustains a dependence on our evaluations and our decisions about what is good and bad, rather than helping them begin to form their own judgments. It leads children to measure their worth in terms of what will make us smile and offer the positive words they crave. It leads to a dependency on approval.

Components of descriptive praise

Effective praise, then, has two parts:

  • First the parent expresses appreciation for some specific contribution or effort.
  • Second, the child draws conclusions about himself or herself based on this specific statement from the parent.

For a mother to tell her son, “You're so strong” is not as effective in building self-esteem as saying “That was really a heavy load. Thanks for your help.” This boy can then think to himself, “I must be pretty strong. Mom thought I was a good helper.” These internal conclusions will be much more believable to the child than a parent's general value judgment of the child as a person.

Evaluative comments are often unnecessary. In the long run, parents can become less judgmental and controlling, and help their children become more independent and motivated, by acknowledging what their children do. Just pointing out an aspect of a child's drawing that seems interesting (without saying that it's nice or that you liked it) will likely be enough to encourage further efforts.

For example, if your preschooler makes you a get-well card, instead of saying “It's beautiful,” you can describe it: “I love these yellow balloons and red hearts. They cheer me up. I feel better already, just looking at them.”

Practice using descriptive praise

It takes more thoughtful effort to use descriptive praise than evaluative praise. Why do we respond with a barrage of compliments? It's easy. It feels good to have someone looking to us for approval. But it takes skill and care and attention to encourage people in such a way that they remain interested in what they are doing and don't feel controlled.

Remember descriptive praise has two parts:

  • Describe what you see and hear.
  • Describe what you feel.

To try this out with your own child, think about three things your child does that you might want to praise. Practice describing those things in your head, or on paper. When the time is right, try out those comments with your child. Note your child's reaction and how the comments were received.

It might take lots of trial and error before you feel comfortable using this new skill. If things don't go well the first time, practice (and practice) again in the future. With practice, you'll get there and your parent-child relationship will benefit.

Related resources

Encouragement Is More Effective Than Praise in Guiding Children's BehavioreXtension — Get tips for encouraging your child, and find out why encouragement may be more effective than praise.

Joan E. LeFebvre, Extension family living agent in Vilas, Forest, and Florence Counties, University of Wisconsin. Reviewed by Steve Small, Family life extension specialist — University of Wisconsin.

Reviewed 2016 by Lori Hendrickson, Extension educator in family resiliency.

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