Praise This, Not That: How to Praise Your Kids

By Daniella Guzman

praise your kidsThere is nothing more satisfying to me than to tell my daughters how proud I am of them. I’ve always thought parents are expected to tell our kids they’re good and smart to help build their self-esteem.

I was surprised to learn that some child development experts encourage parents to say things such as, “Good job,” “I’m so proud of you,” and, “You’re so smart” to our children less often. Martin Seligman, author of “The Optimistic Child,” says too much praise makes kids reliant on the approval of others, and that they come to expect that pat on the back. The stamps or stickers kids get after gymnastics, ballet or soccer practice are external motivators that can turn into entitlement issues when kids grow up. People like Seligman want to prevent them from developing the “I’m awesome and I don’t have to do anything for it. Where’s my sticker for showing up?” attitude.

Carol Dweck, a Stanford University professor of developmental psychology, conducted research that found that children’s performance worsens if they always hear how smart they are. Kids who get too much praise are less likely to take risks, are highly sensitive to failure and are more likely to give up when faced with a challenge, she concluded.

I’m always curious and open to hearing new ideas to help me better parent my children. The idea of “encouraging” and not “praising” our kids sparked an interest.

Proponents of this school of thought recommend that parents describe their child’s behavior rather than label it. So instead of saying, “You’re such a good big sister for sharing your toys,” say something like, “You shared a toy with your brother. That was thoughtful of you.” Avoid saying , “Great job cleaning you’re room. I’m proud of you.” Instead, say, “You cleaned up your room the first time I asked. That was helpful.”

My 6-year-old, Sofia, always looks to me and my husband for praise and approval while she’s playing sports or when she brings home artwork. She often asks if we’re proud of her or if we like her work, and we always praise her until she knows how amazing we think she is. Instead, experts encourage parents to say something like, “You worked so hard on that dance routine,” or “You used so many colors in your artwork. That was very creative.” Instead of saying, “Your reading sounds perfect,” say, “You’ve been working so hard on your reading and it sounds better every week.”

The idea is to teach kids to focus on how they feel about their work and the effort they put into it. The hope is that learning a new skill or getting better at a task will become their reward rather than praise, a sticker or an award.

Experts also suggests coaching children to think for themselves. When asking your kids to clean their room, you can ask, “How do you think your room looks? How can we work on that? What could you clean up first?” This teaches kids to realistically evaluate their efforts.

The more I read up on the subject, the more I realized there’s no way I can stop praising my kids altogether. But I do think it’s a good idea to rephrase our feedback to focus on encouragement, and to save the praise for times our children go above and beyond with an accomplishment.

Daniella Guzman is the anchor on NBC4 Southern California’s “Today in LA” weekday morning newscast, 4:30-7 a.m. A mother of two, Daniella’s column, “On the Record,” brings her views on parenting, fun family activities and her take on work-life balance. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @daniellanbcla.

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