Praise vs. Encouragement for Kids

He needs encouragement, not praise.

You know the times when you’re going along in parenting, thinking you are actually doing something right, and doing it well, in the midst of all of the struggles of raising a child? Then you come across something, whether you read it in a book or magazine or hear it during a conversation with a friend, and you realize that maybe you aren’t really doing the best thing after all?

That’s how I felt this morning when reading a chapter in Parenting with Love and Logic (which I’m only a few chapters into, but loving it so far!) It talks about the difference between praise and encouragement and how each affects a child.

As a parent, I of course want to build up my children and help them to feel good about themselves and their accomplishments. And I have thought all along that the best way to go about that was to praise them for their hard work and good choices.

I knew that over-praising, or praising even when my kids didn’t do such a great job, weren’t good ideas, and I really tried to praise them only when I felt it was earned and well-deserved. But, I didn’t realize that there is a distinct difference between praise and encouragement and that one can actually help a child to feel more confident in themselves and their decision making skills.

As explained in the book, praise is a good feeling that come from the outside, and is based on statements and a judgement from the person giving the praise. It assumes that there is a good relationship between the adult and child. Praise leads to good feelings about the job the child did, and the adult who gives the praise.

Encouragement, on the other hand, builds good feelings from the inside of the child, is based on asking questions, and is nonjudgmental. Encouragement helps a child self evaluate and make choices for themselves, and helps a child to feel good about themselves and more competent in making decisions, regardless of the relationship between the child and the person giving the encouragement.

So all along when I’ve been praising my kids, trying to build up their confidence and self-esteem, what I really should have been doing was encouraging them.

Now, this doesn’t mean that praise itself is bad, just that it has a different effect on a child than encouragement does. Also, praise is not an appropriate response when a child doesn’t do a good job or makes a bad decision, but encouragement can still be used in those instances to help a child evaluate their behavior, learn from their mistakes, and try to make a better decision the next time.

So, you may be wondering, what is the real difference between praise and encouragement? How do I encourage my child in the way that will be the most helpful to them?

As I stated above, encouragement is question based instead of statement based. And I think that this is the major difference. I tried it out this morning while my son was working on an oversize floor puzzle that he can do by himself, but usually I have to help him get started.

I held back and let him work on it himself. I asked him questions about what he was doing, and how he was going to figure out where the pieces fit together, instead of just waiting for him (or even helping him) to find a piece that fit and then praising him for doing a good job, which is what I usually do.

I asked things like: Which piece are you going to work on? How can you find where that piece goes? How did you figure that out? How are you doing? and What are you going to do next?

I was so surprised by how my son reacted to my questions and encouragement. He answered my questions and went to work on the puzzle, without once asking me to help him. But, every time he would get a new piece together, he would call me so I could look at it. And the look on his face was one of the proudest I have ever seen.

Of course, I did throw some praise in too. Not just “Good job buddy” kind of praise, but “You are working really hard at figuring that out.” And he would get a big smile on his face and say, “Yeah, I am.”

Seeing him so proud of himself, and so confident that he could figure the puzzle out on his own without my help, was more than enough for me to see that there really is a difference between praise and encouragement.

If you’re still looking for examples of encouraging questions, here are a few more from the book:

  • How do you think you did?
  • Why is that?
  • How did you figure that out?
  • How do you think you will handle it next time?

The last one is obviously an important one to use in situations where a child doesn’t make the best choice, turning it into a learning opportunity for them. Hopefully they will be encouraged that they can make a better choice, or do a better job, the next time.

As with most things in parenting, there really is not a “right” or “wrong” way to do things. I think that it’s still important to praise your kids for a job well done.

But, if you’re really trying to instil self-confidence and good decision making skills in them, give encouragement a try, instead of praise, and see if it has the same effect on your toddler as it did on my son. I’d love to hear your stories and experiences in the comments!

Emily writes about green and natural living at Live Renewed.
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