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How to praise children: Don’t link ideas of being ‘good’ with being quiet and compliant

Parents should focus on praise for effort rather than outcome or achievement, says psychologist

Praise for top marks, a brilliant drawing or for scoring a goal is not always the right course. Illustration: iStock

Praising your child is a good thing, right? Well, it depends how you do it.

Praise for top marks, a brilliant drawing or for scoring a goal is not always the right course. Calling your child a “good boy” or “good girl” for results can give the wrong idea.

“What the research is telling us is that it’s probably not the most constructive way to praise because it focuses on the outcome,” says Jade Lawless, an accredited psychologist, counsellor and psychotherapist with the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP).

“What we are learning now is that we should move towards focusing on praise for effort rather than outcome,” says Lawless.

Good girl/boy mentality

Praising a child for being “good” can begin to define their character, says Lawless. “It feeds into a thing called ‘conditions of worth’ where we can grow up believing that to feel love or feel worth, we must meet certain conditions. For example, I’ll be loved if I am doing ‘good girl’ things.”

If we are not being a “good girl” or “good boy”, we can feel that we are somehow not acceptable, says Lawless.

“That can lead us to doing things like people pleasing or it can give us these unrelenting high standards to live by and this links to low self-worth.”

‘Good’ behaviour

Linking ideas of being “good” with being quiet, compliant and not speaking up is not great either.

“These are conditions of worth that you can grow up believing. You might start to think, my voice is not important here,” says Lawless.

External worth

When praise and love are linked to “achievement”, it can pave a hard road for kids.

“When we always focus on the goal or outcome, we reinforce that worth comes from an external place. That’s where we will get validation. We then turn into adults that need external validation,” says Lawless.

“So if I get the job or the new car, then I feel worthy. If I don’t do that, then I’m not good enough.

“We all would have grown up with outcome-based praise, and society is very externally rewarding, it always looks at the outcome. If as a parent you find yourself slipping into that, be compassionate with yourself.”

Praise effort

Don’t praise the end result, but rather your child’s effort, advises Lawless.

“Rather than saying, ‘That’s a great picture. You are a great boy for doing that,’ you might say, ‘I really like the colours you picked. I can see how hard you worked on that.’

“That type of praise opens up a growth mindset. When praise is based on outcome, we create a fixed mindset: ‘I’m only good if ...’” she says.

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“Research shows that if we praise effort, children will start to see mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than getting hooked on failure and achievement.”

Praising values such as their hard work, kindness or creativity of their efforts builds self-esteem.

Quality not quantity

Effective praise is not about quantity but quality, says Lawless.

“Praise for everything can mean I’m only worthy when I’m doing well,” she says.

Children have to experience disappointment too. “If we protect our children too much, and wrap them up to think the world is a very rewarding place with constant praise, they will learn on their own at some point that it’s not true,” says Lawless.

“It’s okay to start that process at home: ‘It’s okay to fail, you don’t have to be brilliant all the time.’

“Praise for effort teaches kids their skills and intelligence can be developed, these things are not set in stone. Rather than believing I am either clever or not, good or not, they learn I don’t always have to achieve. I have room to grow. They learn that they don’t always have to produce a great result.”

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about homes and property, lifestyle, and personal finance