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If Praising Kids Is Bad, What Should You Do?

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I had a conversation with my two-year-old recently that really put something in perspective for me: I think I talk too much. The two of us were eating dinner, and he started to sing the first line of “Ba Ba Black Sheep.” My first instinct (I could literally feel it bubbling up inside me) was to chime in and help him bring the song home.

But I didn’t. I just listened. Long pauses between lines and a few skipped words, but I kept my mouth shut, watched him, and smiled, maybe raising my eyebrows a little in interest. He ended the song. Again I felt the urge to shout “Good job!” or “Nice singing!” but again I just sat there and smiled, nodding my head semi-enthusiastically but mostly just grooving with him.

Suddenly all these songs started coming out of his mouth that I didn’t even realize he knew – he must have learned them at daycare. He casually sang, and I matter-of-factly listened and enjoyed.

It really made me think about how often I probably interrupt his little trains of thought with the encouraging words I think he wants to hear.

Psychologists have been telling us for a long time now: parents are praise-addicts. We pat our children on the backs for their strength, behavior, and smarts – and it seems logical that the more compliments, the better. But the research is clear: certain kinds of praise may not be as helpful to our children as we think.

But, more broadly, I think we’re also input addicts. We’ve been told over and over to actively participate with our kids, but sometimes we go overboard with constant prompting and verbal feedback. I’m convinced that every once in awhile, our kids need us to stop talking and just be.

You hear it all the time: “That’s great jumping!” or “Thanks for asking so nicely!” We tell our kids they’re great so often because we want them to feel good about themselves and we want to increase the likelihood that they’ll repeat what we praise them for. It’s a proven behavioral concept – immediate feedback is key to reinforcing a behavior.

But I get the feeling sometimes that it’s more rewarding for my son if I just let him know that I see him – that I’m with him in whatever experience he’s having. I don’t have to have an opinion, good or bad, about everything he does.

Of course I don’t just sit there stonefaced, either. I talk to him a lot, I’m just not always sizing up his every move. Author Alfie Kohn, who makes bold statements (a little too bold for my taste) about the damaging effects of praise, notes that a simple, evaluation-free statement is sometimes the best response. “So you’re making red circles with the marker?” or “That’s a tall Lego tower!” just means, “I notice what you’re doing and I’m right here with you.” I agree with him on this count – we can take a break from dishing out the gold stars and just hang back and observe.

Focus on the effort

Years of research have shown that praising our children’s natural abilities is not as helpful as recognizing their effort. For our kids to learn, follow their interests, and achieve their goals, they have to focus, work, and persist in the face of failure. Effort and discipline outshine IQ and innate skill when it comes to moving forward in life.

Since the 1970′s, Carol Dweck of Stanford University has shown repeatedly that children of all ages are more likely to give up and slip downward when they believe natural skill determines success.

And subtle language cues from adults affect this belief: after completing an exercise in one of Dweck’s experiments, children who heard “Wow, you must be smart at this” versus, “Wow, you must have worked really hard” behaved very differently. The kids who heard the first affirmation later became frustrated if they messed up, and their performance went down. Meanwhile, the kids getting the boost for effort bounced back more easily, and their performance even rose after failure.

This means that telling our kids they were born great, smart, or fast does not build their egos. “I see how hard you’re trying today, that’s awesome” will go farther than, “I know you’re good at math, you can do this.” We give children confidence when we tell them they can work to get ahead and are in control.

Be specific

Giving general praise and sweeping statements of assurance misses the mark. Again Dweck’s research has shown that kids’ ears perk up more when an adult comments on a specific action or episode, rather than when the adult makes a general “kudos” statement.

So when we’re talking to our kids, “Oh man, you really ran fast!” might mean more than “You played a good game today.” And likewise “It’s neat how you’re sharing that toy” instead of “You’re playing really nicely. Good job.” The more precise we can be, the greater the impact.

Everything in moderation

I certainly haven’t wiped “Nice work, buddy!” from my parent vocabulary, and I don’t think that if I tell my son he’s smart, fast, or cute he’s going to spontaneously unravel when he gets to high school. Likewise, I try not to barge in on everything my son is doing or saying, but I certainly wouldn’t take that to the extreme either – in fact, just today outside the grocery store we were singing the “Bob the Builder” theme song together at the top of our lungs.

But I like understanding and incorporating this research on praise because it makes good sense to me. And with a little practice it ends up being easier on the whole family. I don’t have to be my son’s unconditional cheerleader, giving him props for every right step he makes and every good quality he has. He’ll learn what works and what doesn’t over time. I can just be with him while he’s figuring it out.

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