How to Praise and Compliment Your Kids
There are many ways to praise children, but not all encouraging words are created equal. We’ve put together this guide to help you discern the difference between praising constructively and doing so ineffectively.
Praise the process. Process praise (when children are praised for their efforts, instead of their selves) can help children gain confidence and feel empowered to try new things. It can also inspire kids to keep working on challenging tasks (e.g., Kelley et al 2000; Henderlong and Lepper 2002; Gunderson et al 2013; Gunderson et al 2018a; Gunderson et al 2018b).
Praise your child’s efforts. It helps keep them motivated and helps them understand they’re not just being praised for their achievements.
Praise only what your child has control over—such as the choices made along the way of solving a problem or drawing something. Doing so reinforces autonomy.
Offer descriptive feedback instead of praise. Of course, there are of only so many times you can say, “You must have worked hard!” so, rather than trying to, consider describing or narrating what you observed your child doing along with a neutral expression of joy. For example, “Wow! You used your shovel to dig such a big hole in the ground!”
Don’t praise the outcome (“It’s gorgeous!”) or the person (“You’re so smart!”) encourages children to focus on those things, which might lead them to feel performance anxiety or question if your love is conditional (“If I’m smart when I do this, I must be stupid when I don’t.”). By praising the person or the outcome, kids are at risk of developing a fixed mindset.
Don’t praise by comparison, even though it can be tempting. It fosters an unnecessary drive for competition and doesn’t actually motivate younger kids.
Don’t praise too often. Beware of praise inflation, as it can lead to something called “praise addiction.” Praise addiction is when a child performs behaviors specifically to earn approval.
10 compliments to try with your kids:
Instead of: Good job!
Try: Being specific. For example, “Thank you for helping me tidy up. I love the way you lined up the shoes so neatly; it will be a big help when we’re getting ready in the morning!”
Specificity helps kids feel valued. By being specific and pointing out why something made you happy, you’re telling them which behavior they should repeat.
Instead of: “You look so handsome/pretty!”
Try: I love the animals on your shirt. Which is your favorite? Why?”
Praising children for their looks can decrease their self-esteem while unintentionally tying their feelings of self-worth to their looks. If you do comment on appearance, focus on what the child can change (for example, their clothes).
Instead of: “That’s a beautiful picture!”
Try: “I love the colors you chose for the sky. What made you think to do that?”
Instead of: “You’re so smart!”
Try: “You worked so hard on this project! I knew you could do it if you put your mind to it!”
Praising kids for fixed attributes like their natural affinity for certain school subjects or their intelligence can backfire. If something comes easier to a child and they’re praised for it, they may question if they’re smart at all should they struggle at other things (plus they’ll likely not try so hard in the future at the subject that comes easier to them).
Instead of: “That was so nice of you!”
Try: “I saw you help your classmate when they tripped. He was really upset! You helped him to feel better when you hugged him. Doesn’t it feel good to help people?”
Instead of: “You won!”
Try: “You practiced so much! I know how hard you tried to learn the rules and get the hang of it. All that practice really helped!”
Focus on the effort, even if there are setbacks, not the outcome.
Instead of: “Yay, you finished your carrots!”
Try: “I guess you’re not hungry right now. That’s okay. I’ll put this in the fridge, let me know if you want me to reheat it for you if you get hungry for it after this.”
Praising for eating is counterproductive as it encourages kids to stop listening to what their bodies are telling them. They learn that it’s good to eat when they’re not hungry to please others and to eat things they don’t like to feel good. In time, these behaviors can lead to overeating, comfort eating, or emotional eating.
Instead of: “Good job calming down!”
Try: “You were really upset, weren’t you? It’s okay to be upset sometimes. As you get older you’ll get better and better at feeling your emotions without feeling out of control.”
Praising your kids for calming down is like saying to them, “I only like you when you’re happy.” Supporting them with their emotions, whatever they are, helps them to feel validated and connected to you, which will help them to share their feelings with you in the future. Keep in mind, praising effectively takes time.