Meaningful Praise With Children

May 11, 2015

praiseLast month we examined how praise can have negative effects on children’s motivation and performance. A wide body of motivational and psychological research suggests that parents and educators have options besides simple praise to encourage and support their children. Even praise itself has various forms, such as process praise, authentic praise, and meaningful praise. The one constant in all praise is that it needs to be specific and genuine.

Instead of saying “Good job’ or “You’re so smart” try commenting on the process rather than the individual. Observe what you see rather than asserting a judgment. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Praise effort: “I can tell you are very focused on this.”
  2. Praise the strategy: “You discovered a way to solve this that I had not thought of, how did you do it?”
  3. Praise with specifics: “You are using a lot of examples in this story; I can really feel what you are saying.”
  4. Be Honest. Don’t say something is beautiful and great when it is not. Comment on the process, effort, or creative strategies used.

Some research suggests not commenting at all; rather asking questions that engage the young learner in the process and deepen the connection to adults in a more meaningful way. This encourages a growth mind set rather than simply accepting an adult’s subjective evaluation.

Kids under the age of seven accept praise at face value, while older children are skeptical of praise just as adults are. Interesting, by the age of twelve, children scrutinize the motivation of praise as hidden agendas for adults trying to get kids to do something. Some studies also indicate that children view praise as meaningless comments geared toward those who may be less intelligent. Studies found that children believe receiving praise from a teacher was not a sign of doing well; rather, it was a sign the teacher thought they lacked ability and needed extra encouragement. What message are we sending to children when we drown them in praise?

Praise does not equal better performance, grades, healthy self-image or motivation. Next time your child creates a masterful essay or sidewalk art, try to observe and comment. Make a simple, evaluation-free statement which provides supportive feedback or genuine questions, not judgment. You may find that this process is harder than dishing out quick meaningless praise. This type of connection to children requires authenticity and attention. If we are to raise a generation that is authentic, self-motivated, and connected, that process begins with us. How are you going to do it? Do you see how this type of interaction with children is different that simply saying “good job”?

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