In this series we've covered why it is important to praise what the child does rather than what the child is, and why it is important to be specific about what is being praised. The next guideline is to focus on the hard stuff.
Praise makes kids feel better about themselves, right?
Well, it's complicated.
A recent study found that praise can actually backfire for kids with low self-esteem, leading them to feel worse. This is puzzling given what we already know about how praise works, but the reason why it backfired is very illuminating.
The reason the praise had such a negative effect was that it was what the researchers called "inflated" praise. In other words, it was praise that was over-the-top, insincere, and for little effort. Essentially, the researchers discovered that when an adult gives extravagant praise for easy things, the child's self-esteem goes down.
The study demonstrated something that parents intuitively sense: kids are smart. Really smart. They are finely tuned to whether an adult is being sincere. They know if the praise is real and heartfelt, or inflated out of proportion. And when they feel that the praise is for things that are held in low esteem, their self-esteem declines to match.
The antidote to inflated praise is simple: give praise for things that are genuinely difficult for the child. It is particularly helpful to praise effort instead of outcome, because if it is truly difficult for the child they will often not succeed until a lot of effort has been expended.
In other words, focus on the hard stuff.
I advise parents that I work with to have a short list of "target behaviors” with which their child struggles. For shy children, it could be making eye contact or giving a greeting to a neighbor. For hyperactive children, it could be for staying in their seat and waiting their turn. For just about any child, it could be for sharing toys with siblings. Keep a short list of these behaviors in mind, and make sure to praise them when you see them.
Simply knowing and labeling what the child is working hard to change can do wonders for the child, helping her to feel understood. She will know you are paying close attention and empathizing with her hard work. That, all by itself, can be an amazing experience for a child.
For a parent, focusing on the hard stuff can help you to put your own effort and energy into the things that really matter, simplifying the complex business of parenting. And by doing so, you will know that you are sincere and can avoid some of the potential negative effects that can come with inflated praise.
In the next post in this series on praise, I will discuss how to praise so that you match the child's developmental task.
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