Is there a right or a wrong way of praising kids? Not until long ago, I thought every bit of praise was positive and helpful in increasing children’s self-esteem.
I made a serious attempt to understand self-esteem in kids better, contested my initial thoughts about praise and I found that there really is a right and a wrong way to praise kids.
As well-meaning parents, we tend to praise our kids for everything ‘good’ that they do. And more often than not, we hear praise like— “You are a great girl” or “Your performance was awesome!” Kids become very uncomfortable with such praise that evaluates them. This can make them extremely dependent on external approval. In worst cases, they may even misbehave to prove us wrong.
In comparison, describing a child’s accomplishments, and if required telling them how it makes us feel (descriptive praise), rather than simply evaluating them with an easy “good” or “wonderful” can be a lot more effective. It might be a lot more difficult since we are used to judgemental praise. However, descriptive praise can give the kind of emotional nourishment that will encourage independence and creative thinking in kids.
When I first learnt about the two kinds of praise, I found it easy to understand, from an adult’s point of view as well. Every appreciation that I have received at the workplace, can be clearly classified into two categories–Judgemental ( “You played a great part in this project, Congratulations! “ ) vs descriptive ( “Your pilot project helped us to clearly identify the customers that are important for us. This narrowing was critical for our business to maintain focus in these rough times. We intend to showcase your pilot project in other geographies and see if a greater audience can benefit from it. Thank you for your hard work”).
The judgemental type of praise always left me wondering, what great part are they really talking about? – Is it my idea that they liked or the efficiency I demonstrated which got their admiration? Or are they just praising for the sake of praising? The descriptive praise would have certainly taken more time and effort for the person who was praising, but that reiterated the strong positive feeling in me about my meaningful contributions to the organisation I work for.
Similarly, for children, if we state what exactly we like and appreciate about the child’s actions and accomplishments, we remain factual and descriptive; we leave it to the child to do the evaluating. I started applying this new learning with my seven year old son some months back. In a regular homework session, I discussed with him the importance of writing neatly. He found it challenging to keep his words neat. Finally, he managed to write a page with well-constructed words. He looked at me joyfully, his eyes searching for my appreciation.