Letting your kids know how special they are

Yet certain kinds of praise convey messages we may not want to give:

  • Praise can imply a judgment. Words such as "good," "pretty," "nice," and "beautiful" imply a comparison. When you can be "good," there is also the possibility of being "bad." When you're "nice," you could also be "mean" or "selfish." When your painting is "pretty" or "beautiful," it could also be "ugly."
  • Praise is often conditional. Because children most frequently receive praise for things they "do" or "make," rather than just for being themselves, they can end up wondering if they're okay when they are not "producing" or "achieving."
  • Praise focuses on the end result. Praise is often reserved for the culmination of the achievement or the "product," rather than for any part of the process. The struggle, the falling down, the mistakes, the hard work leading up to the achievement are not acknowledged nearly as much.
  • Praise is often inaccurate. Praise that is not descriptive of what the child is actually doing can convey to children that we're really not paying close attention. If your child has lined up all her alphabet blocks, and you respond with, "You're such a smart child," she may feel you don't really understand her intent because, in fact, she has just built a train to take all her animals home.

    As Francisco recounted: "My daughter had just painted her whole page with dark blue and red. I said to her, 'What a beautiful picture.' She turned to me and said, 'NO, IT'S NOT! IT'S A SCARY PICTURE!'"

  • Praise emphasizes external validation over internal feelings of satisfaction. Children who have grown accustomed to praise can lose touch with the inherent feelings of accomplishment that come with their achievements. As one father, Keith, recalls: "I was praised too much and ended up feeling like a trained seal. To this day, I want outside acknowledgment for every task, no matter how trivial."
  • Praise can lead to competition. When children are taught to rely on external validation for their accomplishments, they often become competitive with siblings and peers, in an attempt to win more of the recognition.
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