Beyond Praise: Building Self Esteem Through Encouragement


Have you ever noticed how quick we are to say, “good job” or “you are so smart” to our children? For most parents, it has almost become a tic to heap praise on every thing our children do. Our natural instinct is to let our children know how much we love them and how proud we are of their growth and accomplishments. How we express these feelings makes a huge difference in how our children feel about themselves now and as adults.

I must admit, the first time this distinction between praise and encouragement was presented to me as a parent, I rolled my eyes. Even though my professional self understood the issue at hand, as a new mom I said, “Really? Now you expect me to worry about the nice things I say to my kid?” I had so many other questions and concerns that this one just seemed over the top. As I settled in and reflected on my professional knowledge of self-esteem and child development, I welcomed the discussion on how I could eliminate this urge to praise everything my daughter did.

You may have heard this topic before too, as it has been written about extensively. I am writing about it again because we need to hear it often. It takes a long time to rid our selves of habits. This desire to praise seems so ingrained in our society that we all need to remind ourselves that there are better ways to help our children feel valued and loved.

What’s the problem with praise? There has been a vast amount of research on this topic and the data is crystal clear. Praise leads to lower self-esteem, creates approval junkies and leads to risk-averse children and adults. Carol Dweck’s study of fifth graders in New York public schools helps us understand these effects. Children were given a written test consisting of puzzles. The first test they were given was easy enough that they could all do well on. After the test, each student was given one statement about his or her results. One group was told, “You must be smart at this.” The other students were told, “You must have worked really hard.” Students were then given a choice of tests for a second round. They could take a test that was described as easy and similar to the first one. Or, they could take a test described as more difficult but they would learn a lot from trying the puzzles.

Here’s the part that blows my mind every time: Of the students who were told they must have worked really hard, 90% chose the more difficult test. Of the students who were told they must be smart, the majority chose the easier test.

So, the kids who were praised for intelligence took the easy way out. Why? Now this is what gets to the heart of the matter. If someone tells you that you are smart, they are commenting on something we perceive to be an innate characteristic. If you are told you worked hard, they are commenting on the amount of effort you put in. Effort is something we have a choice about. The control lies within us. When we believe we have control over something, it increases your confidence and willingness to try. When you feel like you do not have control, it is much scarier to take risks and we do all we can to avoid failure. We take the easy way out. There were several additional rounds of testing as part of Dweck’s study; it’s fascinating to read if you have the time.

Approval Junkie Syndrome, another ill effect of praise. When we constantly dole out the praise, we teach children to rely on the opinions of others. We tell them that their opinion of themselves is not what matters and so they continue to seek out approval from those around them. Praise is judgment. It’s a statement that says, “This is what I think is good and bad.” While our job is to help our children navigate the world and learn right from wrong, if we always tell them, they do not learn how to navigate for themselves. Remember that proverb,Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Give children praise and they may feel good today, teach them how to value themselves and they will grow in to self-reliant, confident adults.

Praise on the job. This topic is not just hot in the parenting arena. The workplace is very concerned about it as well. For the last few years, business experts have been re-evaluating management strategies as a new generation enter the workforce. These young workers have grown up in a culture of constant praise from their parents and teachers. After all, the word on the street to Baby Boomers was that praise was the key to increasing your child’s self-esteem, leading to greater success and happiness in life. For past generations, it was just expected that you do your work to the best of your abilities. Managers are now finding that young workers want to be applauded more and more for doing their jobs. Remember those ill effects of praise, less risk taking, need for external approval? It’s leading to new workers needing a great deal more hand holding on the job. Here’s a great article for more information on the real world effects of a praised generation.

From Praise to Encouragement. A quick look at the dictionary makes the difference clear.

Praise: To express favorable judgement of. To glorify, especially by attributions of perfection.

Encourage: To inspire with courage. To spur on.

Again, we are looking to instill our children with tools they can use as they move out in to the world on their own. How do we shift our language from a place of judgment to one of inspiration? Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting, offers us three great options: Say nothing, Say what you saw, Ask questions.

Say Nothing. I know we have that automatic urge to follow every action with a statement that tells our kids we are proud. There’s another hidden urge Kohn discusses: We often use praise to reinforce behavior. We want them to know we liked that they cleared the table and we would like them to do it again. We think, if I tell him he’s a good boy for clearing his plate, he will want to do it next time too. And the truth is, it does make them feel good in the moment. It makes them say, “I made daddy happy.” They may do it again to make you happy. But it usually dies off pretty quick and then they are just off to find the next thing you will praise them for. Anyone had this experience with sticker charts or rewards in general? It works for a few days and then the novelty wears off and you are right back where you started, except you feel more frustrated than ever.

The goal is to parent for the long term. What are the long-term values you want your child to learn from clearing the table? In our home, the value is that we all contribute to our family. We all have jobs that are part of being a member of a community. We are respectful to our possessions. Saying, “you are such a good boy” may feel good to your child in the moment, but it does nothing to move us toward our long-term goals. So, if you find your motive is about reinforcing behaviors, this would be a good time to not say anything and just let the child feel good for being a part of the family.

Say What You Saw. This was a huge one for me. When I began to just state the action instead of adding judgment, I began to see my child glow with her own pride. I realized that by being so quick to throw in my own two cents, I was stealing her opportunity to notice how she felt. In the big picture, that is what matters: How our children feel about themselves. If we tell them how to feel, they lose out on discovering how they feel for themselves.

One great way to get in the habit of doing this is to begin a statement with, “I notice.” As in the example above, you could say, “I notice you cleared your plate.” For the toddler mastering a new skill, “You put your shoes on by yourself!” If your child shares their toys with another child, Kohn suggests bringing their awareness to how the other child is feeling. “Mike seems thrilled to have a turn with your truck.”

Sit back and watch your child’s face. This is often what motives families I work with to eliminate the use of constant praise. It’s amazing to see how children begin to strengthen their own internal compass when given the opportunity.

Ask Questions. Even better than describing what you see is to ask what they see. Instead of pointing out what you like about the bead necklace they made, ask what they like about it or how they picked the order of the colors. When we ask, we give them the opportunity to reflect on the process and the accomplishment. This also gives us more opportunity to connect with our children and let them know we are truly present with them. Often that is what we are trying to do with praise anyway. By asking questions they get the benefit of learning to be self reflective, while knowing you care.

Old habits are hard to break. It takes a while to get used to a new way of doing things. We also need to remind ourselves periodically about the importance of how we communicate, which is why I revisit this topic often. We are not perfect though and praise does leap right out sometimes. At those moments when I catch a “good job” coming out, I also add, “how did it feel to do that by yourself?” or “tell me about what’s happening in the picture you painted.” Jane Nelson of Positive Discipline says it so well, “Praise, like candy, can be enjoyable on occasion. Encouragement however, should be a staple that you give yourself and your family every day.”