We love our children – and it’s natural to praise their efforts. The right sort of praise builds self-esteem and the traits of success, but the wrong sort can lead to problems.

Praise for effort
It’s tempting to tell your child she is clever. “You learned/did that well because you are clever.” But sometime soon he is going to find a situation he doesn’t succeed in – and then the doubts creep in. And he may look for ways to avoid that type of challenge in the future.

So praise mainly for effort. “Well done – you learned that well because you really concentrated and tried hard.” That reinforces the thought that success needs effort. And it builds a willingness to try something new.

In a school-based piece of research, one group of students was praised for the effort they put in. They became more confident, willing to learn something new and 50% of them achieved improved results during the term.

The other similar-ability group was praised for their ability. They inevitably encountered a situation that was difficult, or in which they couldn’t immediately succeed. They began to worry about their ability and grades, they no longer enjoyed their tasks and 30% did worse during the term. Because a poor result had dented their self-image.

In the pre-school years I recommend the idea of an effort coupon. When you see your child trying hard to achieve something, even if he or she hasn’t yet reached her goal, he gets an effort coupon. Saving up effort coupons entitles her, for example, to a trip to the cinema.

Failure is feedback
When your child fails at something, the best response is “I wonder what you can learn from that? What can you do better next time? We can always learn from our mistakes.”

Be selective in your praise
Parents think they're building their children's confidence and self-esteem by frequent praising, but it may result in just the opposite. A child can sense when too much praise is insincere, and it can make her afraid to try something new or to take a risk for fear of not being able to stay on the pedestal you have created. The underlying message is that she needs to get her parent's approval all the time – instead of relying on herself.

So by all means do praise – because too little praise may imply that you don’t care – but it needs to be proportionate to the task and the effort.

What does work well is to share a success with your partner – in front of your child. “Joanna, wait till you hear what Cathy did today! She has learned to read five new words!”

Direct the praise onto the child
If you say, “I think you did a great job of painting that picture”, the emphasis is on your opinion. So he looks for ways to keep getting your approval.

Whereas if you say “You must be proud of the way you chose the right colours and put in all that detail. Not just the green of the leaves but the right colour brown of the bark.”, the emphasis is on him achieving for his own sense of self. It also reinforces what contributed to that success.

Be specific in your praise
Look for ways in which praise can reinforce attitudes like:

  • Resilience: “Well done, you didn’t give up when you were trying to ride your bike, so you succeeded in the end.”
  • Willingness to try new things: “Well done, now you can tie your shoelaces, what else do you want to try?”
  • Caring for others: “You must be proud of the kind way you looked after that little boy when he had fallen down.”

Use body language
Praise doesn’t have to be verbal. A high-five when he adds two numbers together correctly or a pat on the back when she helps with the washing-up is a clear message.

Finally, should a success bring a money reward?
Very rarely. You are trying to develop intrinsic motivation – the pleasure of overcoming a challenge for its own sake.

But one way I do think you can use money to build character is if your child wants a particular toy. I would say to my own children, “That’s rather expensive, but you can help by earning something towards it. If you help me with the gardening, you’ll have earned some money that we can put towards the toy you want”.

We can summarise the best way to praise like this:- Use praise to reinforce independence and the value of effort.

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