Building Self-Esteem: How to Use Praise with Your Child

Building Self-Esteem: How to Use Praise with Your Child

It is the start of a new year and a great time to consider how we might be using praise with our children. Parents differ in their feelings about using praise, and scientists debate about the effects of praise. It is no wonder parents often struggle to decide on how they want to use praise with their children. On the one hand, a lack of praise can lead to misbehavior and struggles with self-esteem. On the other hand, overusing praise can diminish its power and reduce motivation. The purpose of praising children should be to encourage them to engage in positive behaviors that lead to positive outcomes. But with all the debate about praise, how can this be done? Here are some tips about how parents can use praise as a valuable tool to encourage their children’s positive behavior and help them start the new year off right.

  • Use specific praise. Label the specific behavior your child did that you liked. For example, instead of saying “Good job,” say “Good job cleaning up your toys as soon as I asked.” This lets your child know that you appreciate his hard work and encourages him to do it again in the future.
  • Be enthusiastic when giving praise. Praise that is dull, monotone, and inattentive is not motivating to children and does little to encourage positive behavior. Therefore, it is important that parents are enthusiastic when providing praise. Try making praise more enthusiastic by combining it with a warm smile, eye contact, and maybe even a pat on the back or a high-five.
  • Be sincere when giving praise. While praise should be enthusiastic, it should also be sincere. Children are experts at recognizing when their parents give false praise, which can feel discouraging and manipulative to them. Avoid general, effusive praise such as “You are the smartest girl in the whole world!” Instead, offer more realistic and truthful encouragement such as “You worked really hard on that difficult homework!” It is important to remember that a child’s behavior does not have to be perfect for a parent to provide sincere praise. It is not truthful to say to your child “What a great basketball player you are!” when she missed all of her shots. However, you can still give praise by saying something like, “I can see you are working on your shooting.” This lets your child know she still has your positive, accepting attention without the insincere praise.
  • Avoid praise that is sarcastic or combined with put downs. Consider what it might feel like to get the following praise from a coworker: “Thanks for turning your report in on time. It sure would be nice if you could be this good of an employee all the time.” Ouch! By combining praise with put downs or sarcasm, parents remove all of the positive impact of their attention. They also send the message they are discouraged by their child which can stop him from continuing to engage in positive behaviors. When giving praise it is important to focus on the positive only and to avoid reminders of past poor performance.
  • Praise your child’s efforts, not her innate abilities. Praise is often more effective in the long-term when it focuses on a child’s efforts, not her unchangeable or innate abilities. For example, instead of saying “What a good job! You are so smart!” praise focused on effort sounds like “I’m really proud of how hard you worked on that tough math problem!” When parents praise a child’s innate ability they are giving attention to a fixed trait that is often unchangeable. A child receiving this type of praise may avoid challenges in the future for fear of failure or being seen in a negative light. In contrast, when parents praise a child’s effort they are giving attention to a changeable trait the child can control. This type of praise encourages children to work harder and tackle challenges that promote learning. Therefore, parents can encourage their child’s long-term positive behavior and development by focusing their praise on efforts and processes.
  • Use praise to help your child master new skills. To be effective in the long-term, praise should also encourage children to focus on mastering new skills versus comparing their performance to others. For instance, instead of saying “Nice job! You finished first and ran faster than all of the other kids” praise focused on mastery sounds like, “Nice job on your race! I can really tell you have been practicing and working hard on your running skills.” Praise focused on social comparison is only motivating so long as a child is finishing first. When this child no longer performs better than others, he often loses motivation to continue engaging in the behavior. Social comparison praise also teaches children that competition is more important and motivating than personal mastery and development. As such, behavior is only valuable to a child when he is best at it. In contrast, praise focused on mastering new skills teaches children to value effort and improvement, even when others outperform them and helps them cope effectively with failures and set-backs.
  • Give praise that is immediate, but also unpredictable. Praise is most effective when it is given immediately after a child engages in a positive behavior. For example, praise offered two weeks after a child cleans his room loses its ability to motivate. This same praise given immediately works to encourage him to clean his room again in the future. While immediate praise is critical to promoting children’s positive behaviors, it should not become too predictable. If praise becomes so habitual that it is provided after everything a child does or after behaviors that are already easy, it quickly becomes meaningless. For instance, constantly praising a child who can already say the word “dog” for saying this word can feel insincere. Instead of using praise in this case, consider sharing your positive time and attention by saying something like “Charlie is such a nice dog! What color are his spots? Where is Charlie’s nose?” Your child will be motivated just by your interest and engagement. By strategically using praise for your child’s hard work and positive behavior, it remains motivating, meaningful, and sincere.

By keeping praise fun, enthusiastic, and unpredictable, parents can demonstrate support and encouragement for their child’s positive behaviors while simultaneously helping their child find personal satisfaction in a job well done. Praising children’s positive behaviors helps them master new skills, stick with difficult tasks, and improves self-esteem. Praise can also lead to strong parent-child relationships by letting kids know we are proud of them and that they are worthy of our positive time and attention. This in turn promotes children’s positive behaviors that lead to successful outcomes. Overall, using effective praise with your children can help them

Kimbree Brown
Kimbree Brown is a research associate with the KITS program. She has worked with the program since 2010 and recently completed her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Oregon. Her focus is in early intervention and prevention to improve mental and academic health of children and families.


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