Positive Parenting: Encourage or Praise?

Learn about the benefits of practicing positive parenting and find examples for using encouragement instead of praise.

We live in a culture where a blue ribbon, a gold star, a trophy, or at minimum an enthusiastic "good job!" has become commonplace—and even expected—when children participate in an activity, regardless of their effort or outcome. Many feel these practices are important to build a child's self-esteem and are harmless, but in fact, they are neither.

While each of these events are not individually harmful, and are sometime perfectly appropriate, the practice of continually praising or overpraising a child can be. The problem with praise is that children begin to expect constant acknowledgement and conversely are alarmed when they do not get it. They come to rely on external praise rather than develop internal motivation or confidence in their emerging abilities. They stop doing things because they should or they can, and instead do them for the recognition.

Further, according to Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a professor at Columbia University, children who come to rely on praise take fewer risks, because they are unwilling to lose their praiseworthy status. When children seek praise (consciously or unconsciously), they tend to avoid anything they will not get "right," which is unfortunate because mistakes, trial and error, and risk-taking are critical elements of any learning process.

The impact of praise on a child starts early. In a study facilitated by Dr. Dweck, children as young as fourteen months had begun developing opinions about themselves and their abilities based on praise their parents gave them. As children age, if they only define themselves by good grades, winning, or anytime they receive praise, they’ll feel less competent or worthy when these things are absent, e.g., the real world.

So what should we do instead? Offer encouragement.

As an alternative to praising a child's end result or the child themselves, we should offer encouragement for their efforts and attitudes. Encouragement can be inspirational and motivating—a gentle, supportive nudge that helps children meet important goals—instead of self-defining and limiting.

And when we do praise children, it should be genuine: praise that is specific, e.g., “That was very kind of you to clean up our toys without being reminded,” rather than generic, e.g., “You are wonderful,” and praise focused on behaviour, e.g., “You came up with a very creative solution,” rather than the person, e.g., “You are so smart.”

In Dr. Dweck’s study, children who received encouragement were more likely to believe their intelligence could change and they could do better if they tried hard, whereas children who were praised felt their intelligence was fixed and were already, even in toddler years, avoiding experiences perceived to be challenging.