A child’s sense of self influences his or her behavior, attitudes, emotional state, and level of success. Children develop their sense of self through perseverance and diligence. Trying again and again, despite adversity and failure, children cultivate self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-respect. As parents, teachers, and caregivers, we too can shape a child’s sense of self.
We take great delight in our children’s accomplishments and offering praise does develop self-esteem, self-discipline, and self-control. However, the manner in which we praise our little ones, as well as what we praise them for, makes a huge difference in how they perceive themselves, face challenges, and overcome obstacles. It’s important to know the boundaries and limits of what is appropriate. Children who are accustomed to continuous praise can become praise junkies, and they might even become dependent on others for validation and self-worth.
Praise junkies often fear failure and avoid trying new things. They are insecure and easily frustrated. They will say, “I can’t” before giving a new task a try. Praise junkies often do things to please others, and when we neglect to offer them the praise they seek, they might feel as though they have failed in some way or are unworthy of admiration.
• Praise is judgmental and invites comparison. If something is “good,” it might also be “bad”. If you are “nice,” you might also be “mean.”
• Praise focuses on the quality of the end product or end result. Children are often praised for things they do or make, for their achievement rather than their process. Praise neither describes nor acknowledges the process, but the product. The process might involve repeated mistakes, yet a child’s diligence, persistence, and perseverance are overlooked. A child’s own feelings of accomplishment go unrecognized and unvalidated.
• Praise breeds competition: seeking recognition, appreciation, and acceptance, praise junkies often become competitive with siblings, friends, and classmates.
• Praise might be inaccurate. A child’s
“pretty” picture of a girl might actually be a “scary” monster!
• Effective praise should offer children the opportunity to self-reflect and to learn who they are. It should also help children realize what they like or what they may be good at. Effective praise comes in the form of acknowledgment and encouragement.
• Make an observation and use descriptive language. Note the process: “You’re drawing with blue and red crayons,” “you’re stacking the blocks,” “you’re tying your shoes,” etc. You have now started a dialogue.
• Acknowledge the process, not the child. Encouragement is offered for effort, rather than the success of the finished product. This develops confidence, perseverance, and independence—obstacles become challenges.
• Ask an open-ended question. Begin a conversation. Let your children know that you are interested in them and are paying attention. For example, ask your child to tell you about his or her drawing.
• Mirror your child’s enthusiasm and use body language. Smile, nod, and show affection. “You look so happy mixing the paint.”
• Express your feelings and gratitude, such as saying phrases like, “I enjoy watching you work,” “thank you,” and “I love you.”
Children who are praised or acknowledged for effort and perseverance value learning opportunities and challenges, and they enjoy trying new things. Acknowledgment and encouragement cultivate self-interest and acceptance. Children who are acknowledged and encouraged grow to be independent and self-sufficient.
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