How to Avoid “Overpraising” Your Child

As a public school teacher, I’ve often been on the receiving end of lots of well-meaning advice about how best to reach reluctant learners—particularly when I have told people that I teach middle school kids. The problem with much of this advice—especially when a young teacher is just starting off—is not necessarily that it’s bad, but that it’s overwhelming and often contradictory. I imagine that new parents must feel this sense of advice-overload even more acutely.

One of the hardest things I struggled with during my five years as a public school teacher was actually “underpraising” my students. I tended to be critical first and effusive with praise only occasionally. I tended to resent the notion that I should try to build students up by praising them for things that didn’t seem praiseworthy, and yet, over time I came to realize that many of my students really did respond well to certain kinds of praise and encouragement, and, more importantly, didn’t respond well to lots of criticism. (Who does?)

That said, I don’t think just praising students – or children in general – is the answer to helping them learn and grow. That’s way too simplistic. A recent article in the Times by Paul Underwood called “Are You Overpraising Your Child?” really helped to drive this point home for me. First Underwood noted the negative effects of “overpraising”:

“I love it!” … It seems like the right thing to say. After all, how many times have we parents been told that it’s better to pre-emptively praise (and reward) the behavior we want our children to demonstrate, rather than waiting to condemn them for misbehaving.

But… praise also has a dark side. This is because praising the outcome (“It’s beautiful!”) or the person (“You’re so smart!”) encourages the child to focus on those things. She might feel performance anxiety. He might question the conditionality of your love. (“If I’m a smart boy when I do this, I must be a stupid boy when I don’t.”) He might become more motivated by a parent’s pleasure than by the process that led to it.

Underwood devoted the rest of the article to providing a number of excellent suggestions for a how to encourage kids effectively – without falling into the traps of too much praise or too much criticism. Here’s an abridged rundown:

1.) Praise the process, not the person.

As part of the self-esteem movement in the 1970s, parents were often told to give their children positive feedback along the lines of “Great job” or “You’re so smart.” This was in contrast to the more removed and discipline-oriented parenting styles of earlier generations, and was intended to be warmer and healthier.

But researchers … in the late ’90s found that it could have a harmful effect. … [C]hildren felt pressured to live up to their parents’ praise, and this in turn could lead to panic and anxiety. Even kids who didn’t experience anxiety became risk-averse… afraid to challenge themselves out of fear of letting down their parents. Dr. Grolnick said this kind of praise can be considered controlling — undermining a child’s enjoyment of and motivation for certain activities by shifting the goal to pleasing a parent.

Dr. Dweck and others researched what happened when children were praised on their efforts, instead of their selves. It turned out, these children gained confidence and felt empowered to try new things.

2.) Pay close attention to your child’s process.

Of course, there are only so many times you can say, “You must have worked really hard on that!” To provide meaningful process praise, you have to pay attention to the process itself. …

[P]raise doesn’t have to be immediate. If your child is working on a drawing, for example, you don’t need to comment on every color selection. Wait until the end, when your child shows you the drawing, and then say something like, “Ooh, I see you chose to put the purple next to the brown — that’s so interesting!”

3.) Praise what your child has control over.

We communicate our values through praise… One of those values is autonomy, so it’s helpful to praise what your child has control over, such as the choices they made along the way of solving a problem or drawing a picture. …

“A parent says, ‘I see.’ It can make the child feel like, ‘Ooh, what I’m doing is fun, and my parent thinks it’s fun, too.’”

4.) Don’t praise by comparison.

It can be tempting to praise a child’s achievement by casually comparing her with others (“Wow, you jumped in the water all by yourself when your friend was too scared!”). Not only does this foster an unnecessary sense of competition, but … it doesn’t actually motivate younger children.

5.) Beware of praise inflation.

Inflating praise can lead to what Dr. Corpus and Good termed “praise addiction,” in which a child compulsively performs behaviors to earn approval. There’s another risk, too — one thing most researchers seem to agree on is that children can sense when praise is not genuine.

What’s particularly interesting is how this affects kids with low self-esteem. Parents (and teachers) of such children often try to boost the spirits of these kids by offering lavish praise (“Your drawing is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen!”), but kids with low self-esteem respond poorly to it. This is because this type of praise creates an impossibly high standard, and children quickly lose motivation in the face of that impossibility…

Instead, consider simply describing what you observed your child doing, along with a neutral expression of delight: “Wow! You dug a big hole in the sandbox with your truck!” This reinforces the behavior (and communicates that you’re paying attention) without setting an unrealistic standard.

6.) Rather than praise, offer descriptive feedback.

It’s similar to how asking “How was your day at school?” often invites silence, while saying something like, “I noticed a colorful drawing in your backpack” might invite your daughter to provide you with the artist’s commentary.

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