How dare I throw cold water on praise? Doesn’t every loving, caring parent praise her child? Yes! And for the most part, praise is great for kids but overpraising (constant, exaggerated praise even for small efforts) can have unexpected negative consequences on our child’s well-being.
Let me say right up front, every parent probably over-praises on occasion (including yours truly), so if you have this habit, know you have plenty of company!
1. The problem with over-praising
Overpraising can sound so phony to a child that it does little to nothing to increase her well-being. On some level, she knows that what you are saying does not correlate to what she has done.
You can inadvertently train your child to constantly seek your approval: she doesn’t feel okay unless she hears you cheer, “WOW! GREAT JOB!” Over-praise can also give a child an unhealthy sense of entitlement – that life should be easy and everyone should admire her no matter what she does.
If a child already has a low self-esteem, over-doing the praise actually makes the problem worse. These kids interpret exaggerated praise as expectation and they end up feeling afraid to fail. So they either pick easy tasks or they don’t engage in challenges at all.
2. How children develop self-esteem
Parents who over-praise are well-meaning, loving parents. They just want to bolster their child’s self-esteem and encourage them to succeed. Especially when a child is struggling to feel good about themselves or their abilities, it’s understandable that a parent would want to pour on the praise. But here is how we really build our child’s self-esteem:
Love kids unconditionally. We often assume a child’s self-esteem only comes from being successful at something. But self-esteem also requires a deep sense that we are lovable and worthy no matter what we do. That’s unconditional love; love without strings attached. Self-esteem blossoms when our kids know they don’t have to do anything or even behave a particular way in order for us to love them.
Allow kids to take risks doing things they love. Help your child find his gifts and talents, and give him the freedom to do hard things with those gifts. Sometimes he will do well, sometimes not, but if he knows you will support him regardless his performance, then he will continue to strive, develop grit, and build his talents.
Be a child’s mental coach. Kids need the opportunity to do things on their own, even to make big mistakes, but they also need our guidance when faced with something that is really too much for them intellectually, physically, or emotionally. Children learn how to confront seemingly insurmountable obstacles through our guidance and gentle support. Over time, our encouragement – the messages we gave them — will become internalized and second nature to them. Eventually they will gain confidence when faced with obstacles.
3. The effective use of praise
We can nurture our child’s self-esteem through praise, too, but it should be realistic and sincere if we want to be effective. A few tips: focus more on a child’s effort rather than the result of his efforts (“You worked hard on your painting” rather than “Your painting is incredible!”). This is called process praise. Point out specific things that you like about his project (“I love how you painted little birds landing on the house”) and ask him questions about what he’s doing (“How did you get the feathers to look so fluffy?).
This approach lets him know that what he’s doing is interesting to you, and that you are really paying attention to something he cares about. This engaged interest is far more powerful for instilling self-esteem than trumpeting accolades that are unrealistic.