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Why praise shouldn’t be demonized

Why praise shouldn’t be demonized

Did Baby do something amazing – or at least pretty cool – today? Probably, right? They are growing every day, and if they climbed the stairs, put on their socks, or asked for their breakfast using a complete sentence, they are using skills they might not have had at all just a few short months, weeks, or even days ago. For some parents, this parade of new accomplishments can feel like it needs the accompanying sound-track of their praise and encouragement, but others are a little bit more shy with their compliments.

The argument around praise

Praising children and toddlers for jobs well-done seems like it should be a no-brainer, and for many parents, it is. “Good job,” is a pretty common phrase around the playground, but some studies, and some child behavior experts have concerns about the seemingly harmless phrase. Some research around children’s reactions to praise suggests that certain types of praise, including “good job,” can actually hurt children’s self-esteem, and discourage them from taking risks, while other types of praise can be more beneficial.

  • Person praise: The type of praise that some studies suggest can actually have a negative effect on children is “person praise,” or praise that makes a statement about who a child is as a person, inherently. “You’re so smart,” is a common example of person praise, and one that’s often connected with a lack of academic growth. Children who are told that “smart” is who they are, so the theory goes, as well as many personal stories, are less willing to try things they might be “bad” at, or have to work hard to master. On the other hand, when it comes to kindness and generosity, some research says that person praise can actually encourage these attitudes, while other studies suggest that praise, like other rewards, can discourage generosity.
  • Process praise: The type of praise that focuses on the process, rather than the end result – “you tried so hard and it paid off,” rather than “you’re good at that,” is set up as the opposite type of praise as person praise. Process praise is supposed to encourage confidence and an adventurous spirit in children without over-inflating their egos. On the other hand, process praise can fall into some of the same pitfalls as person praise, especially as children grow. Evidence suggests that only children 7 and under take praise at face-value. Children older than 7 are likely to evaluate compliments and decide whether they’re sincere, which can affect the impact they have.

Positive, helpful praise

The praise that’s the most likely to have a positive impact on your child, whether it’s person praise or process praise, is praise that’s sincere and specific. As they get older, children start to take in the praise in a more critical way – praise that they perceive as insincere or over the top might not have the positive effect a parent wants, and could even be bad for self-esteem.

Praise that’s specific, or even just noticing specific things, or asking specific questions, can be both more helpful and more significant for children without falling into the traps critics of person praise worry about, like setting up an image of themselves for children to try to live up to.

In the end, the difference between person praise and process praise can be helpful as a way for parents to think more actively about the messages they send their children with their praise, especially if focusing on the process helps parents to be more specific, and more sincere, even if that means turning down the volume on praise a little. By the age of 12, though, one study shows no real difference in children’s reactions to person praise as opposed to process praise.

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