Parenting young children — 26 December 2009
How to best praise your children?

As with many other child-rearing practices, educators’ recommendations about what helps or hurts children’s esteem have fluctuated widely. Every decade or so, parents are advised to use different techniques to bolster children’s self-regard.

Healthy, authentic praise of children’s accomplishments or conduct have been found to be affirming to youngsters and useful in developing their sense of mastery. For example, telling a young child that his ability to make his bed is excellent for a seven year old is a helpful, supportive assessment. Telling the same child that his skill is the best ever of anyone his age, is likely to feel untrue and confusing.

Children know when the praise they receive is authentic and warranted. They also can tell when the excessive enthusiasm feels insincere. In the latter case, they are more likely to discount their accomplishment and disrespect the parent. Ron Taffel, Ph.D. in his column, “Vertically Challenged” in Psychotherapy Networker, says, “The issue of praise, then, isn’t just whether it creates greater self-esteem or motivation, but whether it leads adults to be perceived as honest and trustworthy enough to be listened to.”

Dr. Dean Edel, in his daily medical show on KGO Radio, has repeatedly riled against parents who excessively praise a kindergartner’s multiple scribbles, as “the most beautiful picture I have ever seen.” He labels it an ‘outright lie’ that confuses the child, does not provide healthy feedback and reduces the parent’s credibility as an honest evaluator and source of sincere assessment. Those experiences may leave the child with long-term doubts about how to accurately rate him/herself and tarnishes his trust in the parent.

A useful reaction to a young child’s “painting” may be to inquire about how it was created, how the child enjoyed the process and what appeals to him/her about the artwork. Expressing your approval of the effort put forth and praising the studiousness of the child, provides a sane measure for self-respect and pride for your youngster.

Taking a child’s accomplishment in context of his/her personality, serves as another good tool for teaching patience, perseverance, hard work and pride, particularly for a youngster who has a short attention span or tends to get distracted easily. Dr. Taffel explains,
“I have found that praise acknowledging a child genuine effort to go against constitutional tendencies is more powerful than most limit setting scenarios.” It helps motivate the child to focus, rather than ordering him to do so.

Children, as adults, respond well to sincere enthusiasm about them or their accomplishments. They tend to remember the praise and use it as a behavior guideline, approval acquisition and self-gratifying esteem. Excessive exuberance about a task that feels insincere and un-merited, can only damage the child’s respect for the parent. It also may interfere with the youngster’s comfort of accepting guidance, limits and discipline from a biased feedback provider.

When emotions of the parent are either excessively positive or negative, children intuitively disregard them as unreliable. It behooves parents to be affirming in an authentic, believable way, as they would with other adults. Children may not understand it but intuitively know that unmerited praise is unworthy of being integrated.

• Praise your children for hard work, effort, responsible behavior or kindness. They can hear it and use it as guidelines for life’s conduct.
• Affirm your children’s positive behavior and tell them it reflects their kind nature, quick mind, sensitivity to others, etc.
• Abstain from excessive enthusiasm or using superlatives. The child may perceive them as inauthentic, reject the aplomb, and feel confused. He/she may also mistrust your other reactions as biased and unreliable. Your child’s disrespect of your input may interfere with your parenting authority and the child’s self-esteem.
• Respect your child’s astuteness in deciphering your sincerity. Your honesty will be respected and integrated to help your child grow into a more confident, self-assured and competent being.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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