When Praise Builds Children’s Self Esteem and When It Doesn’t

March 30, 2012 | Posted in: Confident Kids, Confident Teens, Happiness, Relationships family

Other than good health what more could we want for our children than happiness and self-esteem? A confident child is likely to do better in school and enjoy it more, is less likely to succumb to peer pressure, and less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

So, how do we go about building confidence in our children?

Many of us do is begin to lavish on praise. While praise is great this is not necessarily the best approach.

While giving praise is certainly important and MUCH better than not giving attention or being critical or negative, some types of praise increase confidence while others decrease confidence.

Here are the characteristics of praise that builds confidence:

1) It is sincere. What makes praise sincere? The delivery. You stop what you’re doing and look at the child. Smile. If you can’t take the time to attend to the child, they’ll figure you don’t really care. Teenagers have a particularly sensitive B.S. meter, so the sincerity is very important. Showing your genuine emotion contributes to the sincerity of the feedback.

2) It is specific. Saying “great job,” is not as powerful as saying exactly what you’re pleased with—keep the next point in mind when you do this…

3) It focuses on effort. When you praise effort people feel like they can reproduce the positive experience in the future, all they need to do is put the effort in. When you praise ability (“you’re so smart,”) people feel like they have to prove themselves and live up to that label which creates anxiety.

4) It is sporadic. This is another counterintuitive point. Research shows that variable reinforcement is more powerful than reinforcing a behavior every time. If you say it every time it loses its power and doesn’t get attended to as much.

5) It is sometimes “constructive,” but more often it is pure praise. Don’t feel that you can never give someone negative feedback for fear of damaging their self-esteem. Constructive feedback is important. If you’ve played a sport you know that the coach typically gives more attention (often in the form of criticism) to the top players. Keep the ratio of positive to negative around 4:1.

6) It doesn’t “sandwich” or use techniques. I don’t recommend using the sandwich technique of praise, criticism, praise. When you do this, kids learn to hear the “but…” piece and dismiss the praise. Over time they’ll tune out the positive and wait for the negative. Instead deliver each piece of feedback separately using the 4:1 ratio discussed above.

7) It encourages learning. Praise that encourages growth, even mistakes and failures, opens children up to take risks and try new things. They figure that you must really believe in their ability to do it (or, more importantly, to handle it if it doesn’t go well) which boosts self confidence.

Experiment with these ideas and see if praise starts to feel different to both you and the child.

 Anything else you’ve found about what works well for praising children and teenagers and what doesn’t?

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