See it … Say it! The right kind of praise does build self-esteem.
Recently it seems that every major publication has had an article about praising children: too much praise, not enough praise, or the wrong kind of praise. The Atlantic recently published a piece by Eleanor Barkhorn called Lavishing Kids with Praise Can Make Them Feel Bad about Themselves. Ms Barkhorn, we think, correctly asserts that there is too much of the wrong kind of praise – what she would call inflated praise.
First of all, we have to understand why we use praise (or encouragement, positive reinforcement, positive description or acknowledgement – whatever you want to call it). Praise has purpose – a key purpose – and every parent needs to know this! The purpose of praise is to instill in your children a strong sense of self-esteem and true confidence in their own ability. The reality is that most comments directed toward our children are negative and on many days, the ratio is almost 684:72 negative:positive! That is almost 10:1 … and not in a good way! In order to build confidence and self-esteem, the magic ratio needs to be 5:1 positive:negative. Praise works, because when you spot your children doing or saying things that you want them to be doing and saying, they will do more of it when they know that you have seen it. Get it? See it … Say it!
With so much information about praise, just what are you going to say?
Ms Barkhorn describes three kinds of praise – all of which, we agree, are ineffective, evaluative ways that are unlikely to teach your children anything useful about what to do next time:
Inflated: "You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!"
Non-Inflated "You made a beautiful drawing!"
No praise: No comment whatsoever about the drawing at all.
And, then she provides insight into the kind of praise that will impact self-esteem: “frank, straightforward praise”. We make it much simpler and call it descriptive praise. This is what descriptive praise looks like [and here is the caveat – it has to be 100% factual and honest … you can’t say something you truly don’t believe … because your child won’t believe it either.]
You have been sitting at the table for more that 30 minutes working away at that vocabulary list. You are really focusing your attention on it. I really like the way you have covered up the definitions and are writing them down in your own words. That shows great initiative and will help you remember the words. ... (later) And now you’re doing the practice quiz on the iPad. It’s great that you find new ways to prepare for the test. ... (after the test) You did so much better on this week’s test … and you know, that hard work you did made a big difference.
What does your child learn about himself from this honest assessment?
- I can focus my attention;
- I can take the initiative to come up with learning strategies that work for me;
- I can find extra study sources to supplement my learning.
- Effort pays off.
How do you descriptively praise?
- See it … Say it! Focus on what your children are getting right and tell them so!
- Notice and mention - in detail – tiny steps in the right direction.
- Acknowledge their effort, attitude, strategies used and improvement.
- Point out the qualities demonstrated.
This will start to build their self-esteem. It will be a bit like watering a cactus at first – you really won’t have any idea of the influence of your words. Eventually, though, you will hear your child say something like ‘vocabulary tests are easy’. Success breeds success. When you support your children to get things right, and point out when they’re doing so, they will be SO much more motivated to do the same next time.