What does it mean when you say, “You’re so smart!”? Are you telling someone they’re intelligent, clever, cunning, observant, ‘book’ smart, ‘street’ smart, adept, sharply painful?
What does your child hear if you say it to them? “Mom loves me be because I’m smart.”
How about if you tell your child, “You’re so cute!” or “You’re funny!”?
When we offer praise to a child we’re putting emphasis on a trait that we appreciate. Of course, we think our children are smart, cute, and funny, but what we really need to say are things like, “Wow! I really like how you worked on that puzzle to figure it out.” Being specific teaches them about what it is that we like and value.
Do we really want our child to grow up thinking that we value them for being ‘cute’?
There have been 1000s of studies done, articles and books written on the importance of self-esteem building in children. By and large, the conclusions from the most recent studies have shown that by giving false praise like “Yea! You did it! You’re smart!” really only puts more pressure on the child to be perfect. They don’t want to make mistakes, so they won’t disappoint but the effect of this is that they will give up on things they find difficult.
Too much false praise can also teach the child reward-seeking behavior. Instead of developing those good traits to earn the reward their brains are wired to seek out the reward. This can cause them to give up or shut down if the reward is missing.
Age is also a factor in how children hear the praise. Under about age 7, they take it as you present it. Through pre-teen, they can hear it more of a sign that they need encouragement because they’re lacking a skill. Teens, can take it as more of a criticism. The praise needs to be specific so that it’s genuine in its sincerity.
Self-esteem is important, but it should be cultivated by encouraging the behaviors and traits that we see as valuable. Things like working hard, being kind, compassionate and honest. Self-esteem is built on accomplishments and the good feeling that we get when we get recognized for those accomplishments. Who doesn’t feel better after a good ‘pat-on-the-back’ from our boss? But imagine if it were an everyday occurrence?
When you praise, be specific to what trait you’re proud of. Try this:
|Praise Junkie||Genuine Praise|
|Great game!||I like how you worked with your teammates to pass the ball.|
|You're so smart!||Way to figure out the puzzle/math/reading!|
|You're so pretty!||I like the way you're wearing your hair today.|
Praise what’s important. Be specific. Imagine if someone said it to you. Don’t turn your child into a praise junkie.