Hold the praise: Improve your child’s self-esteem through encouragement

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Myra Enders only needs to look back at her childhood to understand why praise isn’t great for kids.

As a child she worked hard to learn how to play the piano, but her efforts were overshadowed by her older sister, Lou Alice, who played the piano gracefully. Lou Alice received all the praise from their mother.

“Mother kept saying she played the piano so well, oh I hated her,” Myra recalled with a chuckle. “I’m not sure I’m over it. I’m sure my mother never had any mean intention, but we all remember it.”

Myra now volunteers in Oakland Family Services’ preschool classrooms, where she has learned that using encouragement with children is better than praise.

“I certainly have learned how to say something about their picture without saying it is beautiful,” said Myra, who has volunteered at the agency for more than eight years. “I will tell them ‘Wow, you really took a lot of time on that’ or ‘I see you used a lot of color.’”

So, what’s wrong with telling a child, “Good job?”

First of all, it can create “praise junkies,” said Sarah Lawrence, Early Learning Communities manager at Oakland Family Services.

“It is a common misconception that children need to hear how great they are, how pretty they are or that they are doing a good job,” Lawrence explained. “This produces ‘praise junkies’ —children who constantly need an adult to tell them how great something is in order for them to want to proceed.”

Praise also can negatively affect a child’s self-esteem, cause anger and resentment, and discourage risk taking, Lawrence said. Research has found that students inundated with praise were more cautious in their responses to questions, had less confidence in their answers and were hesitant to share their ideas.

What’s more effective with young children is encouragement. Here are some encouragement strategies parents and caregivers can try when interacting with children:

  • Participate in children’s play. Follow their lead and be a partner in play by sitting alongside them and taking turns. Watch as they build a tower of blocks, for example, and then build one yourself.
  • Encourage children to describe their efforts, ideas and what they have made. Ask open-ended questions to get them talking and feeling good about their work.
  • Recognize children’s work and ideas by making nonjudgmental, descriptive comments. An example: “I see that you have colored a picture by using a lot of yellow on the top and green along the bottom.”

So the next time you think of saying “Good Job!” to your child, try encouragement. It can lead to your child being self-motivated and willing to take on challenges.