Monday, February 28, 2011

Praise vs. Encouragement

You've probably heard about the Tiger Mom. The Chinese mother who wrote about her perspectives on raising your children the 'tough way'.  I was discussing this with a few other moms the other day during a playgroup.  The discussion then lead into how maybe the answer is to just start 'Praising' our children better.

Ah, the whole 'Praise' versus 'Encouragement' argument. Before I became a counselor, I thought 'praise' was a good thing. What's wrong with praising your children, I thought? Then I attended a lecture from one of my graduate school professors who explained the difference between Praising your children vs. Encouraging them.

What is 'Praise' in regards to raising your kids?

Praise is telling your child how wonderful they are, how amazing, fantastic and job well done. Praise is when you tell your kids, "I am so proud of you!' or "Good girl!" They are usually words that evaluate something such as: good, beautiful, fantastic, athletic, etc. It is also more of an extrinsic motivator where a child feels the need to please others to get rewarded and praised, see my previous post about this here.

What is Encouragement?

Encouragement is when you are helping to increase your child's efforts and improvements. It is helping your child succeed and does not place judgment on a child's efforts. It's telling your child their actions are good, and to have them look inside of themselves (intrinsic) to reward themselves vs. looking for a 'treat' or reward (extrinsic).

Encouragement increases self-esteem, increases cooperation instead of competition, teaches them that it's okay not being perfect, and focuses on their efforts and not just the outcome (reward).

What is so bad about 'Praise'?

Some praise is good, as we all want to praise our children, but use it in moderation. Why? Well, the downside of using it too much is that a child learns they need to win affection from parents/teachers/adults, as it teaches children to please others, and they soon learn to expect a reward.

Praise often comes with a judgment such as 'best' at this or 'highest' at that and can encourage more competition. It also can create fear of failure, selfishness, and dependence.  They start to doubt themselves and the person praising them. And it can create little snobs who feel entitled and expect compliments and things to always go their way :)

When we praise our kids too much, with statements such as, "You are the best soccer player out there, you are just like Beckham!" we are making them believe they are valued only for being talented and it makes them not want to try. Or when we say, "you are the smartest kid in your class!" we are making them believe they are valued only for being intelligent, and it makes them not want to really learn.

It's good practice to try to 'encourage' your child more than 'praise' them.

So how do you use more 'Encouragement'?

As play therapists, we always try to put the focus back on the child. We comment on what we see, using descriptions and then we encourage them by 'putting it back on themselves.' For example, "You must be so proud of yourself for doing all of your work so fast." Or "I see how hard you worked at that puzzle, you put all of the pieces together all by yourself."

My favorite book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, also has some good ideas on how to use encouragement or as they call it 'Helpful Praise'. The book states that to encourage your child, there are 2 steps:

1) The parent/teacher/adult describes with appreciation what they see or feel

2) The child is then able to praise themselves

Here is an example of how this works with a preschooler:

Child: "Mommy, is my artwork good?" as she shoves her paper in front of you

Parent: (Don't just respond, "very good!", describe it) "Well, I see you drew circles and circles here, wiggles and wiggles there, dot, dot, dots and a slash!"

Child: "Yeah!"

Parent: "How did you ever think to do this?"

Child: "Because I'm an artist!" And the child smiles widely and runs off to play.

See how amazing that worked? The child then turned it around and praised himself!

When using encouraging statements, keep in mind the following:

-Make sure they are age appropriate so it's not too condescending to a teenager

- Don't use too much excessive enthusiasm, it can create too much pressure or come off as fake

-Don't bring up past mistakes or weaknesses such as "you finally did that the correct way"

In case it's still a little confusing about praise or encouragement, here is a chart comparison of the two:



You are so smart!

You are working so hard on your homework.

You are the best listener when I tell you to pick up your toys!

You sure make an effort to listen to me when I ask you to do something.

You had the highest score in your class on your test! Way to go!

You did very well on your test.  You seem to really enjoy doing well in school!

I am so proud of you.

You are so proud of yourself.

You're the best at cleaning your room.

Your room looks very neat since you straightened your bookshelves.

I'm so proud of your artwork.

I can see how much you enjoy art.  You take time to paint and use so many different colors.

Hopefully this makes sense, and I know, there is still no harm in a little Praise now and then!  I just love saying 'Good Girl' to my little girl and seeing her have the biggest grin on her face!  But practicing more Encouraging words will go a lot further in your child's life and it will really increase their self esteem, cooperation and self worth!

For further reading, here is a good article from Good Morning America, titled, 'Why Praise Can Be Bad for Kids.'