Family, Kids & Relationships

3-Step Formula To Make Sure Your Kid Absorbs Your Praise

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Every parent wants to boost their child’s confidence and self esteem, but is setting off “confetti cannons” for every accomplishment the best way to do it? One pitfall of frequent praise is pretty simple—kids just start to tune us out. Either the constant verbal applause starts to lose its meaning, or kids get suspicious that we’re not being sincere. But just as important, knowing how to compliment your child—not just how much—can help ensure your praise is meaningful.

“I think the self-esteem gurus led us to believe we could hand our children self-esteem on a silver platter through our praise, through our words. And we thought…almost the definition of being a good parent was to keep handing self-esteem to our child. But it doesn’t work that way.”

Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University

So what’s the best way to compliment kids—in a way that they truly hear, believe, and has the desired impact?

The key is this: to make sure your praise isn’t about them getting your approval, but instead teaches them to see the value in their own work, effort, and accomplishments. That’s what will set them up to have the confidence and drive to do great things that are important to them and bring them happiness, right into adulthood. January 24th is National Compliment Day, but you don’t have to wait for a holiday to use these important tips. Here’s how.

Move praise to their plate

For sure, we want our kids to feel good—but in the long run, what we ultimately want is for them to learn to evaluate themselves, so they don’t rely on others to tell them whether or not they’re doing well. Of course you’ll still want to tell your kids when you’re proud of them (and why), but you can also help them recognize their own accomplishments in a few other ways:

  • Prompt their pride. Saying, “You’ve been taking care of that plant every day. It must feel good to see how healthy and big it’s getting” will reinforce their own sense of pride, and get them thinking about how they feel about their own efforts—and the results.
  • Simply say what they did. Telling a toddler, “You put those socks on all by yourself!” is often enough recognition—their smile will show that they know what a big accomplishment it is.
  • Ask questions. Your attention will communicate volumes on its own about how you feel, but asking Qs like, “What was your favorite part of the game?” and “Didn’t all that practice pay off?” lets them decide how to feel about it, and reinforces their own feel-good internal reward system.
  • Stay silent. Sometimes a smile, high five, or thumbs up can let kids know you’re proud while leaving them room for their own feelings, too.

Praise the right things

It might sound strange, but parents should avoid telling kids that they’re good at things. As Jim Taylor, Ph.D., professor at the University of San Francisco, explains, “The reality is that children don’t need to be told ‘good job!’ when they have done something well; it’s self-evident” because they’ll be able to plainly see the success or failure of their actions. “They do need to be told why they did well so they can replicate that behavior in the future to get the same positive outcome.”

So instead of telling kids they’re good at things, praise specific actions and efforts that highlight why you’re so impressed with what they’ve done. You can call out anything they have control over (rather than fixed traits like their appearance or intelligence)—like effort, attitude, responsibility, commitment, focus, decision making, or acceptance of others. For example, instead of saying, “Your drawing is amazing!” you could say, “You really concentrated on finishing this picture. The colors you chose are so bright!”

Being descriptive really helps, too—that way they know exactly what they’ve done well, and lets them know your compliment isn’t just a generic ‘attaboy.’ Saying, “I like how you found special spots to put all your toys away” is more meaningful than “good job” when they clean up their room. And saying, “You were really calm and quiet during our car ride” helps kids understand what they did that was praise-worthy much better than, “Wow, you were so good in the car.”

Let them listen in

One sure-fire way to let your kids know that your praise is sincere is to let them overhear you talking about them. When your child is in the room, share the news of how hard they worked on a problem for school, or how helpful it was when they swept the kitchen without you even asking. Just be mindful that siblings aren’t around, since they might feel slighted. Hearing you talk them up to a partner, friend, or their grandparent will not only reinforce what they’ve done well, but also the fact that your compliments are genuine.


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Robyn is Editor-in-Chief at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.