by Counseling and Wellness Center of PittsburghNovember 23, 2020 children mental health, wellness for kids0 comments
How to Praise Your Child
Kids are constantly begging for attention from parents. How you respond to their accomplishments and their success has a big impact on their emotional development and self esteem. Praising children through verbal encouragement and recognition can be one of the most effective approaches to teaching your child to develop good habits. It is one of the best tools you can use as a parent to ensure your kids learn important life lessons and learn healthy habits of success! Giving children praise is an important part of their development and will increase their wellness, but not all praise is created equal. In fact, some types of praise can backfire! There is a large and continually growing body of psychological research that has found that how you praise your child can have a significant effect on their sense of self-esteem and their psychological well-being! Perhaps most importantly, this research has found that certain praise can actually be harmful for your child! See what family therapists say is the best approach to raising emotionally resilient kids!
Not all Praise is Created Equal
Praise is the primary way that we reward children when they exhibit good behavior. When children demonstrate good behavior, rewarding them increases the likelihood that they will repeat that good behavior again in the future. This type of learning is based on the idea of positive reinforcement. We praise successes, both big and small, and try to build a sense of achievement and confidence in our children. Many parents hope that giving children frequent recognition and approval will build healthy habits as well as boost self-esteem. This is all done with good intentions, and may appear to make sense, but there is more to the picture of praise then you might realize! When we praise children, we are not just encouraging them, we are teaching them lifelong lessons about their own capacity for growth and development. If we believe that all praise is the same, we will likely fall victim to a simple mistake that can have lasting effects on our children and their development. All praise is not created equal.
Person-Praise vs. Process-Praise
Praise that focuses on the fixed traits or characteristics of a child is known as person-praise. The name is pretty straight forward; person-praise means that when children are successful, we praise their personal traits. An example of person-praise would be saying, “You are such a good student” when a child gets an A on an assignment. The second type of praise is called process-praise. When using process-praise, the praise focuses on recognizing the process the child carried out that led to their success. Rather than focusing on being a “good student,” which is a fixed trait, you would praise the process of work and dedication the child exhibited. An example of process-praise would be, “The time and effort you have been putting into to your school work has been awesome, and it really paid off on your test!” Process-praise teaches children that they have ownership and responsibility for their success. When your child succeeds, praise the process, not the person. Research has found that process-praise is one of the most effective and healthy ways to encourage your child, build resilience, and instill a strong sense of self-esteem.
When we praise our children, we are not just recognizing and encouraging successful habits. When we praise children, we are teaching them why they were successful. We either teach them that their success happened because of traits they have, or we teach them that they earned their success! Praising the child’s fixed abilities actually undermines their confidence and self-esteem. Often, as adults, we do not realize this, and we end up overemphasizing traits of the child rather than the things the child actually did to reach that success. We say things like, “You are so smart!” instead of saying “Wow, you have been working so hard at your school!” Praising the resilience and dedication that was part of the process of success is the key to fostering a healthy growth mindset and building a true sense of self-confidence in your child.
“Person-praise,” is the tendency to praise the fixed traits that a child possesses. Praising things like being pretty, smart, talented, good at math, intelligent, or a natural athlete are all examples of person-praise. When we praise these traits, we foster unhealthy beliefs about both success, and their personal worth. When we say things like “You are so smart,” or “You are such a good painter,” we are teaching children that they are praiseworthy because of fixed qualities that they possess. When a child is successful, and we praise their traits, we are telling them that their success is due to the traits that they have. This teaches them that the praise they receive is based on the qualities and characteristics they have, rather than the things they do. Research findings consistently demonstrate that person-praise reduces motivation, focuses students on their performance, and encourages them to compare their performance with that of others.
Praising these fixed traits influences the way children view themselves and their ability to change. Whether we realize it or not, we are teaching children to use all-or-nothing thinking, and to judge themselves and their abilities on fixed traits. This creates a “fixed mindset” and makes children more likely to limit their own potential and be harder on themselves when they fail. The lesson that they learn is, “I am successful because of the traits that I have and I can’t do much about it.” In praising the traits of the child, we teach them that success is something that happens to them, rather than something they can achieve. Instead of building self-confidence, we teach children to think with an all-or-nothing mindset.
Children learn to value the qualities that adults praise. In using praise that focuses on fixed trait’s, children learn that it is those fixed traits that adults’ value. In turn, they may come to believe that their value is fixed, based on the praiseworthy qualities that they do or do not possess. Rather than learning how to value themselves, children learn to evaluate themselves. Children learn to base their personal value on the number of good and praiseworthy traits they have and beat themselves up if they don’t measure up! Even though we are trying to build a sense of confidence by telling them how great they are, we teach children that their worth and success is based on a fixed set of characteristics that they cannot control. Ultimately receiving person-praise teaches the child all-or-nothing thinking and fosters an internal dialogue of comparison and self-criticism. In trying to build self-esteem, we destroy it. We teach children that their value, like their success, is based on their fixed traits.
When you focus on praising the process of success you emphasize the effort, dedication, and problem solving that the child used to succeed. Process-praise also includes recognizing and praising when a child asks for help in appropriate situations. Recognizing and praising the process, teaches your child that they have the ability to determine their own success and get through difficult situations. Process-praise teaches the child that they have self-control, and they have the ability within themselves to improve. It focuses on the good things the child does, rather than what qualities the child has. Focusing on things like effort, the investment of time, creative problem solving, persistence, and dedication are all ways to give process-praise.
As a parent, pointing out the free choices your child made gives them the opportunity to take ownership of those choices, and take ownership of their success! Praising the process of success teaches children that they achieved success through their problem solving, effort, and asking for help when necessary. This builds a true sense of accomplishment, fosters accurate self-confidence based on their experience, and develops a sense of self-determination. Children learn that their brains are flexible, and their abilities can be developed. Success becomes something children can achieve through hard work, diligence and practice, rather than something that happens to them. Process-praise creates a “growth mindset” which instills a sense of hope for the future and also teaches responsibility for actions. Praising things such as effort, problem solving, dedication, thinking creatively, and appropriately asking for help teaches the child that their worth does not depend on their traits or characteristics, or the approval of other people. It teaches them those habits are valuable and good, but success or fixed traits are not what give them value.
The idea of using process praise instead of person praise has been applied in schools and classrooms, but it is especially applicable now as many parents find themselves working as teachers aids in the “virtual classroom,” aka the living room! With some extra mental effort, you can learn to reframe unhealthy person-praise, to be focused on effort, dedication, and problem solving. Learning this type of approach can be difficult at first, so here are a couple of examples to illustrate the difference between person-praise & process-praise.
The Way You Praise Success Matters Most When Children Fail
Shortcomings and failures are an inevitable aspect of being human. We all experience failure in large and small ways, and our children do too! Whether we use process-praise, or person-praise has a tremendous impact on our children’s thinking when they experience these failures. If we teach our children to have a fixed mindset by telling them things like “You are so good at Math, good job!” then when they don’t do well they will assume it is because of their traits, rather than a lack of effort or dedication. Person-praise fails to teach children that they could improve through effort and dedication and they can learn better at math skills! When children experience continual person-praise, failure decreases motivation due to faulty beliefs about the reason for their failure. If they learn that success is due to personal traits, then failure is also due to fixed traits and there is nothing you can do about it. This ultimately results in children being less likely to apply themselves in classes, or areas where they struggle. Person-praise undermines self-control. Instead of realizing that they need to put more effort and time into math they label themselves saying, “I’m just not a math person.” or “My brain just doesn’t work that way.” Failure, like success, is falsely believed to be determined by personal traits, rather than effort.
Person-praise teaches children that if they fail, it is because they lack some quality or trait. In reality, it is due to the lack of a skill, lack of dedication, or poor problem solving. Skill, dedication, and problem solving are all flexible traits and can be developed and improved! Process-Praise teaches children that if they fail it is because of what they did or didn’t do, and that gives them the opportunity to adjust their approach. When we use process-praise we teach children that they can learn from failure and mistakes. Children learn that they have the control to adapt and learn based on their experiences of failure. Failure becomes an opportunity for growth, rather than a reason for harsh personal judgement.
Praise the Process, Not the Person
Remembering to praise the process can have a very beneficial effect on your children from infancy to young adulthood! It instills an attitude of growth and development. It also teaches them a valuable lesson about their own ability to overcome difficult situations through problem solving, dedication or asking for help when necessary. Praising the process of success in children creates a foundation for a sense of self determination, and healthy independence in adulthood. When praising your child, try to remember to focus on what your child did that made them successful, or their effort that helped them act in a praiseworthy way. Look for things like dedication, or creative problem solving, and encourage your child to continue working on those flexible abilities! By doing this, you can teach your child about their capacity for development and success, and you instill a healthy growth mindset! Just remember, praise the process, not the person.
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Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. London: Robinson.
Henderlong, J. & Lepper, M. (2002). The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 774-795.
Maclellan, E. (2005). Academic achievement: the role of praise in motivating students. Active Learning in Higher Education, 6(3), 194-206.
Master, A. (2015, August). Praise That Makes Learners More Resilient. Retrieved from http://mindsetscholarsnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Praise-That-Makes-Learners-More-Reslient.pdf