“You’re so clever”
When my son completes a task, or if he’s simply followed my cue (“wash your hands”, “put your shoes on”) I can’t help but praise him to the high heavens. In my eyes, he is so clever, he is a good boy and he has gone a great job. After all, it’s only natural to give praise where praise is due, right? Whereas previous generations may have held back from complimenting their kids, the parents of today are working hard to raise confident, highly-capable children. But is there such a thing as too much, or the wrong type, of praise?
According to leading counselling psychotherapist Katherine Phillip, children don’t benefit from constant praise as much as we’d like to think. “Parents often praise believing they are building their child’s self-esteem and self-confidence however, over-praising can have a negative effect,” says Phillip.
“When we use the same praise over and over, it maybe become empty and no longer valued by the child,” says Phillip. “It can also become an expectation that anything they do must be recognised and rewarded by praise. This may lead to the child avoiding taking risks due to fear of failure. They can also become over-reliant on praise or anxious due to fear of disappointing their parents.”
So, does this mean we should rewind to the 1950s and quit with all the praise? Phillip says no, that the key to healthy praise is to focus on the process, and not so much on the outcome. “While we all love praise, it is the recognition of a child’s attempt, or the process in which they achieved something, that is essential,” says Phillip.
By acknowledging that effort, Phillip explains the child will become motivated to try new things. “Parents can assist to build their child’s self-esteem through acknowledgment rather than general praise. That way, we encourage them to take the risks needed to learn and grow.”
So how do parents break the pattern of praise we’re all so accustomed to? Phillip says it’s important to decipher the difference between ‘person praise’ and ‘process praise’. “Person praise is simply saying how great someone is, it’s a form of personal approval,” says Phillip. “Research has found children who receive person praise are more likely to feel shame after losing. Process praise is acknowledgement of the process the person has just undertaken.”
Here’s a list of the most common praises adults give kids, with some suggestions for “process praise” alternatives:
- “You’re a good girl/boy!”
Without a doubt, this the most overused form of praise adults use with children. “This doesn’t provide any clarity for the child, and may come across as empty,” says Phillip.
“You tied your shoes without my help. You really concentrated on tying the bow.”
“You did it. You climbed all the way from the bottom of the climbing frame to the top.”
- “You’re so clever/smart.”
When children do something that requires concentration or strategic thinking, it can be hard not to get over-excited and resort to this label. “This is person praise. It can disconnect self-confidence and result in fear of failure,” says Phillips.
“You did it!” (referring to the task completed)
“You put a lot of thought into completing that puzzle.”
- “Good job!” Or “Well done!”
This is a common default praise. “Unless we stipulate what the child did well, they are left wondering and the praise is purposeless,” says Philip.
“You balanced those blocks really high.”
“You just read a whole sentence, and you read it so clearly.”
- “You’re so cute/beautiful/handsome.”
When a child does something endearing, it can be really hard to refrain from using the “cute” label. But what happens when the child grows out of that cute phase, or when they don’t receive the same praise outside of the home? “Praising a child’s appearance can lead to body image issues expecting to fulfil that image always,” says Phillip.
“When you smile, your eyes light up and you make me smile!”
“Your red dress is so bright and pretty.”
- “What an amazing painting!”
As a parent, you might find yourself responding this way to every piece of art your child ever produces. “It may be amazing to the parents, yet not to anyone else,” says Phillip. Instead, try commenting specifically on the artwork itself.
“You used blue stripes and red spots in your painting. In some places, the colour is purple.”
- “You’re so strong.”
This really depends on whether you are praising a child’s emotional or physical strength. Again, being specific is always best.
“That box is heavy. You used your strength to lift it.”
“It was sad to say goodbye to Nana at the airport. You were so brave.”
- “You’re so talented.”
Again, this is a general form of praise. It’s always better to praise the process.
“Your story was so imaginative, I really liked the scary monster character.”
- “I’m so proud of you.”
“Always wonderful to hear,” says Phillip. “We all need to hear these words from our parents however a little more specific can be good rather than a generalised comment.”
“I am so proud of the way you helped your friend.”
“You went to the toilet without my help. You made me feel really happy.”
- “You’re the best!” (or the winner, the smartest, fastest etc.)
Of all the praises, this can be the most dangerous. “Being the best can be detrimental to the child psychologically and create a fear of risk and failure,” says Phillip. “The expectations on a child to always be the best can be enormous pressure.”
“You worked really hard to get the answers right in the test.”
“You kicked the ball with all your strength. You scored the goal.”
- “You’re a big boy/girl now!”
As parents, we often use this form of praise to motivate our kids to take the next step in their development or independence. “All children want to be ‘bigger’, they love these words,” says Phillip. “However, we want to ensure they see themselves as maturing and developing as individuals.”
“You picked your outfit and dressed by yourself. It must feel good to do it without my help.”