Praise vs. Encouragement

The difference between praising your child and encouraging them.

When we were raising our children, we were told to “accentuate the positive.” If our kids behaved well, we were told to accentuate the praise like whipped cream on a latte. We were told, “Be your child’s cheerleader. You’re awesome! You’re super awesome!” There could not be too much positive reinforcement with praise. Experts argued that parents needed to boost their child’s self-esteem by letting them know that you support them 100 percent and that you could not spoil a child by giving them too much enthusiastic support.

Then, experts and some parents started seeing children who thrived on that praise and support to the point where they felt they had failed if they didn’t get over-the-top congratulations for everything they did. These children craved praise and suffered anxiety and depression if they didn’t receive it. Some children were actually less motivated to do well when they received rave reviews. Parents were advised to back off on the superlatives. Enthusiastic support had morphed into manipulation of your child’s feelings about their self-worth, making your child dependent on praise.

But, don’t we all want to persuade and support our children to do their best? And celebrate their successes with them? And give them credit for a job well done? How can we help them to develop an authentic, positive sense of self-esteem if we never address the good stuff? Today, there are many public discussions among parents and early childhood experts on the topic of praise vs. encouragement.

Many child psychologists and parents promote the concept of encouragement over praise. Encouragement is respectful of the child’s experience and avoids involving a value judgment about the child or their performance. Encouragement also contains more information for the child than the easy, but empty phrases like, “That’s great!” Such phrases are well meant, but they don’t really tell the child what is so great about what they just did. Here are a few suggestions from Michigan State University Extension for turning praise into encouragement:

  • Putting something specific to their behavior or accomplishment helps the child know exactly what you are encouraging. When your toddler comes to the dinner table with clean hands, you say, “You washed with soap! That’s good!” Even if your toddler’s hands are not dry, at least you can support the effort by saying, “You tried hard to get your hands clean before eating!” By doing so, you are showing that you recognize that effort went into what the child accomplished, even though the results may not be the perfect.
  • By talking about what the child did in a positive and specific way, you are also teaching them about what is important. You are also doing it in a way that does not make them feel guilty or shameful. You value cleanliness while eating, so you encourage your child to adopt your values of cleanliness before eating. You are “catching them being good” and commenting on it in a respectful way.
  • You can also support and encourage your child by noticing the details of their work or effort. One of the most difficult times for us, as parents and educators, occurs when children want to show us their work. Maybe it’s a picture they have drawn, a Lego building they built or a tower of blocks they stacked. They are proud of what they accomplished and they want to share it. It is always tempting to say, “Oh, that’s beautiful” or “That’s awesome” but, is this really telling the child anything important? Is what we think of their work really important to them? Should it be? Do we want our children to do things to make us happy or to do things because it makes them happy?
  • These are important questions that parents ask and sometimes, the answers are quite complicated. But, we can all value the effort they put into it, if they did put effort into their work. We can all give each child the compliment of paying attention to them. By noticing the details of their work or asking them specific questions about how they did it, we are encouraging them to work without making unnecessary judgments about their work.

To sum it up, we created this handy chart of Praise vs. Encouragement.

Instead of saying…

Say…

Awesome!

Something specific, such as: “You washed your hands without being told to.”

Way to go!

Something that emphasizes what you value, such as: “You did it yourself!” Or, “You listened very carefully.”

Your picture is nice.

Something about the details, such as, “You used lots of colors in your picture. “

I like your picture.

Something that puts the focus on the child, not you, such as, “You picked an interesting topic for this picture.”

Ummm (Hard to praise because it’s not a great job)

Focus on the effort invested, such as, “You worked really hard to clean up your mess.”

Good job!

It’s been overused…just don’t say it.

 We would also like to suggest some resources for further reading. There is another useful chart at http://virtual.mjc.edu/prussol/Praisevs.pdf. You can also read an online article from the Taleris Institute through www.parentingcounts.org. We have also found discussions on YouTube about praise vs. encouragement and one YouTube site you may wish to view is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1It3dr017JA.

Tune into yourself today and start noticing the way you encourage your child. You might be surprised at the difference you see just by rephrasing some of your most over-used but under-regarded expressions.

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