“I just don’t want to screw my kids up.”
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. One of my biggest anxieties as a mom is my ability to launch my children into adulthood with minimal damage done.
And to think there was a time when I believed that the hardest things I would do as a mom were the sleepless nights with a teething babe. Boy, was I wrong.
Now that my three kids are mostly past the sleepless-nights phase of their lives, I can see more clearly how challenging the years ahead will be. The solutions to fevers and molars were downright simple when compared with raising emotionally healthy kids.
As a result, I tend to worry about most things I say to my kids. I wonder if I am saying enough or if I'm saying too much. I feel anxious that even the good things I say might be doing more harm than good, like when I compliment the outfit they picked out or congratulate them on a job well done.
It all seems so complicated. There are whole lists of rules about complimenting kids, and they're based on pretty sound research.
"Make sure you’re sincere." "Don’t praise your kid for doing a good job at something they like." "Don’t praise kids for things that they can’t control."
When you praise effort, children will choose more challenging paths and tend to stick with it longer.
In my day-to-day life as a working mom of three, this all seems overwhelming and hard to put into practice. Hoping to really grasp and digest the do's and don'ts of praising children, I spoke with a few psychologists who specialize in child development to glean their insights on the subject.
The Bigger Picture
For starters, parents need to begin by addressing their own anxieties and concerns about their children’s self-esteem. Kids are smart, and even if they’re not aware of it, they pick up on the subconscious messages their parents are sending them, according to Dr. Brad Reedy, psychiatrist and author of The Journey of The Heroic Parent.
“It’s not what you say to your children that makes the difference, it’s how you think about them, how you hold them in your mind. Sometimes...you can sense an anxiety or a desire for the parent to get the child to think or feel a certain way about themselves...that is actually a more powerful message and the child has this experience unconsciously that ‘I am less than, something’s wrong me, I have a deficit, I’m causing my parent's anxiety,” he explains.
"Good job!" and "Way to go!" won't actually get you a long way.
More practically, Reedy suggests that parents adopt a policy of “less is more,” especially when it comes to hyping up kids' performance in school, sports, or other activities.
For starters, it is best not to focus on the product at all, according to Dr. Sarah Kohl, pediatrician and founder of Travel Ready MD, who instead encourages parents to praise the effort behind the product. For example, kids in sports benefit more from interaction in which a parent takes notice of how hard they’ve been practicing or asks if they enjoyed themselves during a game instead of an interaction in which a parent reveals that they've been keeping track of how many goals their child scored.
The interesting thing about focusing on our kids' efforts instead of their outcomes is that it actually sets them up for success in the long run, according to Reedy.
“In studies, children who are praised for their intelligence or giftedness tend choose or follow paths that are easier or tend to cheat, whereas, when you praise effort, that’s something that is within the child’s control. So, when you praise effort, children will choose more challenging paths and tend to stick with it longer.”
It is nongeneric praise that holds the most benefit for children, according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, which found that phrases like, “good job drawing” more effectively encouraged persistence in difficulty than generic phrases like, “good job.”
Additionally, Reedy is quick to warn parents not to use phrases like “I’m proud of you,” as he believes that creates unnecessary pressure for children, often unintentionally communicating that is the child's responsibility to make their parents feel proud.
How Parents Should Behave When It Comes to Their Kids' Behavior
Outside of performance, there is also the issue of how we talk to our kids about their behavior. It’s no secret that parents appreciate children who are obedient and listen well, but we should be careful about how we express our appreciation.
Rather than tying their worth as a person to whether they behave well or not, we want to praise or criticize the behavior.
Generic praise, such as saying “Good boy!” is less than helpful for young kids. In fact, according to a study in Psychological Science, this type of praise is correlated with an increased likelihood of giving up when things get hard.
Additionally, linking praise to a child’s identity instead of the behavior itself can create confusion for the child in the long run, according to child psychologist Dr. Ilana Blatt-Eisengart.
“The problem with this is that you are implicitly telling the child that they are a 'bad kid' when they don't behave and there will definitely be a time when they don't. Rather than tying their worth as a person to whether they behave well or not, we want to praise or criticize the behavior, as well as helping them see the consequences of that behavior.”
Reedy suggests parents take it one step further by adopting more objective language when talking to their kids about behavior. Instead of placing a lot of value on the behavior, parents might instead take notice of the behavior with phrases like, “I just noticed you were cooperating with me and I appreciate that.”
“The problem is, when you get into judgmental language, when you get into placing a value on it, you don’t give place for the struggle. If a child is acting out, for example ... and you’re just paying attention to the behavior and you’re just making a judgmental statement about whether it’s good or bad, you don’t give any place for the unpacking of what’s going on underneath. Acting out behavior always has its roots in some kind of emotional distress or pain.”
The gender divide—is it real when it comes to complimenting kids?
Although parents might feel that girls and boys need different kinds of praise from their parents, the opposite is actually true. No matter their gender, parents should aim for gender-neutral compliments when talking to their children.
[If] the struggle or difficulty isn’t valued and what is underneath isn’t sought after, then the child doesn’t develop an integrated self.
For girls, even comments that are intended to be uplifting can have a negative effect, according to The Guardian. When we focus on their appearances, complimenting their looks or dress, it can communicate the idea that our daughters' looks are the first things we notice about them.
For boys, gender-specific compliments still tend to focus on stereotypical masculine characteristics such as being tough or strong. This is a mistake parents should work diligently to avoid.
“Any time you compliment the masculine in a boy, as if the feminine side is not allowed, that is when we get into trouble. More specifically, what I mean by that is, ‘Man up!’ or ‘Boys don’t cry’ or complimenting a boy for going through something and being tough about it. Versus, of course, you can imagine complimenting a boy when he’s crying, when he’s sensitive, or when he’s vulnerable. Those would be compliments of the whole self, right?”
He further explained that praising children for being strong while getting through something hard implies that being sensitive or emotional or needing help is a failure on the part of the child. Boys and girls alike should be given permission from their parents and caregivers to embrace both the feminine and masculine aspects of who they are, and the way we compliment them needs to reflect that.
Considering a Different Approach
If all of this seems a little overwhelming—like way too many rules about what you should or shouldn’t say—you’re not alone. I couldn’t help but feel like I was failing after my chat with these experts about talking to my kids, especially when it comes to addressing their accomplishments and failures.
So I asked about that—about what parents who don’t feel like they’re saying the right things should do. Reedy suggests parents take an approach I wasn’t all that familiar with before: embracing their limitations.
“You own it. You own your limitations. If you have to be omnipotent, if you have to be all powerful and have all capacity, you and your children are doomed. That’s a fact. You’re overwhelmed, you have limited capacity, you have limited energy, so just own it. You’ll apologize consistently,” he explains.
Parents who are worried about saying the right or wrong thing might also find it helpful to adopt something Reedy calls curious parenting. Instead of making judgemental statements about a child, if parents can be truly curious about their children and their behavior, both positive and negative, they'll give their children and themselves a chance to reflect on what lies underneath.
“It’s not even about shaping the behavior. All of this energy, all of this focus on reinforcing behavior, it can be the cherry on top at the end...but if that is valued and the struggle or difficulty isn’t valued and what is underneath isn’t sought after, then the child doesn’t develop an integrated self.”