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How to Praise and Encourage Kids Appropriately for Success

By Michael Lewis

parentsAs Dr. Madeline Levine, author of “Teach Your Children Well,” stated in a 2012 New York Times article, “The central task of growing up is to develop a sense of self that is autonomous, confident, and generally in accord with reality.” Unfortunately, many parents in their attempts to give their children self-esteem and psychological security overly praise their children and celebrate the completion of tasks that are ordinary and easy, effectively rewarding them for mediocre efforts. As a consequence, children develop a false sense of self-confidence and achievement, a facade of self-esteem that crumbles when they are challenged as teenagers and college students with potentially devastating consequences.

Teaching a child to succeed and achieve the potential of which they are capable is not just a matter of positive reinforcement, but includes giving them the tools to understand and appreciate the reality of genuine achievement. Parents need to realize that self-esteem does not lead to accomplishment, but that accomplishment leads to self-esteem. Children who understand that instances of adversity and stress are inevitable in every person’s life are going to become emotionally and socially intelligent adults who can recover from disappointments and move on with their lives.

Children and Challenges

The latest research suggests that babies as young as six months old learn by doing, and then extrapolate from their own actions. While infants have extraordinary inborn knowledge, they still need to study and learn about the physical and social world through experience. They learn by first imitating the actions they see and interpreting the results either positively or negatively, constantly engaging in a trial-and-error process. The feedback may be physical – for instance, learning to walk involves missteps and falls – or psychological, such as a parent’s smile or praise.

While every child learns to be stronger from the inside out, some may need extra assistance and support from their parents, especially during the child’s early and adolescent years. This does not mean, as Carl Honoré described in his book “Under Pressure,” that a child should be “raised in captivity, cooped up indoors and ferried between appointments in the back seat of a car.”

Melissa Sher, writing in The New York Times, best describes the role of a parent: “Life is messy. Life can be more than messy: bad things happen. However, our job as parents isn’t to stop them all from happening. Because we can’t. Instead, we can try to make our kids feel loved, valued, and secure. So, if we’re lucky, when our children do fail or things fall apart around them, they’ll get back up.”

As Dr Phil says, “Your primary job as a parent is to prepare your child for how the world really works. In the real world, you don’t always get what you want. You will be better able to deal with that as an adult if you’ve experienced it as a child.”

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How to Praise Your Child Appropriately

Toddlers and preschoolers look to their parents initially for evaluation and approval, relying upon the parents’ decisions about what is good and bad. In their efforts to show their love, parents can easily fall into the habit of constantly praising their children, regardless of their accomplishments or lack thereof, just as some audiences are prone to give performers standing ovations for merely showing up.

Psychologist Stephen Groz says that “empty praise” actually reflects a parent’s indifference to the child’s feelings, since children can recognize that they haven’t earned praise for their actions. Furthermore, too much praise over inconsequential or trivial activities can cause children to have difficulty developing their own sense of values and self-confidence.

Sometimes, parents praise on the right occasions, but use language that focuses on the child, rather than specific actions or accomplishments, to the detriment of the child’s later self-image. Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, recently completed a study in which different types of praise language were examined for their long-term effects. The research began with a set of parents and their children between 14 and 38 months old and the type of praise most often given by the parents.

The research was classified in one of the following two categories:

  • Person-Based. “You are really smart,” “You’re a big boy,” and “Good job!” are examples where a child is praised on performance after a task is completed. This type of praise involves a global evaluation on the basis of performance or conditional approval. Person-based criticism is similar: “How could you be so dumb?” or “You really screwed up!” Person-based praise and criticism reinforce the idea that you have a specific set of abilities that are fixed, so that success or failure is a matter of those traits and outcomes cannot be affected.
  • Process-Based. Phrases such as “You must have really tried hard,” “You’re doing a good job,” and “You figured that out” focus on a child’s effort, actions, or strategies, leading children to believe they can improve their performance and welcome challenges.

When the same kids were seven and eight, the researchers checked back with them to see how they felt about taking risks and whether intelligence was fixed or malleable. Confirming earlier research, Dr. Dwick found that process-praised kids believed their intelligence could be developed and were more eager to take risks, while person-praised kids were more concerned about the possibility of failure and afraid to take risks. “If your whole goal is to look smart, you can’t enjoy something when you’re not looking smart.”

One interesting finding of the research was that parents of boys used a greater percentage of process praise than parents of girls. In later years, boys were more likely to have positive attitudes about academic challenges than girls, according to Susan Levine, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Study after study suggests that improving the quality of parental praise helps children develop resilience, confidence, and persistence with the belief that their futures are in their own hands. The following tips can help you be a more effective parent, helping your child grow to be a happy and confident adult, ready to succeed in a challenging world.

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Tips to Teach a Child to Succeed

  1. Use Process-Based Praise. Praise like, “You did a good job reading” or “You did great on your math test” focuses on what kids do, not who they are. Love should be unconditional, but unconditional approval of all of their actions is not productive.
  2. Use Specific Language When Praising. Kids who receive general praise about their abilities are more likely to exhibit “helpless” behavior when they encounter problems with learning than kids who receive specific praise about achievement on a task.
  3. Don’t Shelter Children From Failure. Adversity is a fact of life. Empathize with children and help them understand why they failed and how they can succeed the next time.
  4. Focus On Performance and Improvement. Emphasize effort and specific character traits such as persistence, helpfulness, and consideration, not how your kids feel about themselves.
  5. Teach the Value of Responsibility. Children should learn that actions have consequences and people are accountable for their actions, both good and bad. Surprisingly, many parents who learned the lesson of responsibility early in their lives and believe that it contributed to their success have the most difficulty teaching their children the same vital lesson.
  6. Teach Decision-Making That Fosters Self-Discipline. Sam Goldstein, co-author of two books on resilience in children, suggests that parents ask such questions as, “What’s the problem?”, “What options do you have?”, and “How can you break the solution into steps?” when their children face problems, adopting a “learning to ride a bicycle” mindset.
  7. Encourage Noncompetitive Games. This particular tip works especially well during ages 6 through 10. Help your children set individual goals, and help them to learn from criticism, such as “How can you do better next time?” Competition focuses upon outcomes, not processes, leading to children to believe that winning is more important than the experience or the joy of doing.
  8. Cultivate Optimism. While looking on the bright side can be hard at times, optimism can be inculcated and reinforced by deliberately ignoring negative thoughts and repeating positive thoughts. Parents are models for their children and can help them find the good consequences of most actions.

Final Word

Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in the New Yorker, claims that American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. We are unique among the parents of the world in trying to give our children a development boost with particular emphasis on “quality time” – one-on-one interactions between parent and child that are special, stimulating, and child-directed.

Parenting is akin to being adrift on the ocean at the mercy of wind and waves without knowing the where or when of safe harbor. Fortunately, most ships reach shore eventually as do children grow into adults, a little battered, sometimes with regrets, but generally responsible, hardworking, and considerate, ready to being their own passage with the next generation. Eventually, we are going to get it right.

How do you teach your child to succeed?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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