The Right Way to Praise Your Kids

When it comes to praise, quality over quantity may be the answer to building kids' self-esteem.

Medically Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on December 01, 2012
5 min read

A lot of moms and dads struggle with finding the right balance when it comes to praising their kids: How much is too much? How much is too little? Is quantity that important, or is it the quality of praise that really matters?

While there's no secret formula, experts say understanding the when, where, and how of praising is an important tool in raising confident kids with a healthy sense of self-esteem.

Parents everywhere praise their kids when they do well in school, win a ball game, or build an impressive sandcastle, anything that seems to be something remarkable -- and, in many cases, anything that's just plain old vanilla.

Jenn Berman, PhD, a marriage and family therapist and author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy and Confident Kids, says, "We are becoming praise junkies as parents. We've gone to the opposite extreme of a few decades ago when parents tended to be more strict. And now we overpraise our children."

By giving kids heaping portions of praise, parents think they're building their children's confidence and sense of self, when, in fact, it may be just the opposite.

"Somehow, parents have come to believe that by praising their kids they improve their self-esteem," Paul Donahue, PhD, founder and director of Child Development Associates, says. "Though well-intentioned, putting kids on a pedestal at an early age can actually hinder their growth."

Too much praise can backfire, it seems, and, when given in a way that's insincere, make kids afraid to try new things or take a risk for fear of not being able to stay on top where their parent's praise has put them.

"There is something about praising your child constantly that is belittling," Berman says. "There's an underlying message that the child has to get his parent's approval all the time and constantly look to the parent for validation."

Still, don't go too far in the other direction. Not giving enough praise can be just as damaging as giving too much. Kids will feel like they're not good enough or that you don't care and, as a result, may see no point in stretching themselves for their accomplishments.

So what is the right amount of praise? Experts say that the quality of praise is more important than the quantity. If praise is sincere and genuine and focused on the effort not the outcome, you can give it as often as your child does something that warrants a verbal reward.

"We should especially recognize our children's efforts to push themselves and work hard to achieve a goal," says Donahue, author of Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters. "One thing to remember is that it's the process not the end product that matters."

Your son may not be the best basketball player on his team, Donahue says. But if he's out there every day, shooting baskets, running drills, and playing hard, you should praise his effort regardless of whether his team wins or loses because it's above and beyond the norm.

Praising the effort and not the outcome can also mean recognizing your child when she has worked hard to clean the yard, cook dinner, or complete a history assignment, Donahue says. But whatever the scenario, praise should be given on a case-by-case basis and be proportionate to the amount of elbow grease your child put into it. Here are some real-life examples from the experts that demonstrate the praise fitting the accomplishment:

  • If a child strikes out a few times during a ball game and then finally gets on base with a good ground ball up the middle, he deserves praise. You should praise his resilience and his willingness to push through when the going got tough.
  • If your child is usually a responsible student who consistently does well in math, for example, you can recognize her good study habits, but don't go overboard every night when she sits down to hit the books if that's her normal routine. Give your praise when your child has done something special that's out of the ordinary.
  • When your daughter practices for weeks and finally learns to ride a two-wheel bicycle, give her praise for sticking with it.
  • When your son jumps on an amusement ride, you can tell him he is brave and adventuresome, but don't overdo it with the praise since he's not really working hard -- he's having fun.

When your child does make that special effort that deserves praise, you can certainly dish it out as you see fit. But one no-no that experts agree should be avoided at all costs is praising with cold, hard cash.

"I believe that we want children who are self-motivated," Berman says. "If you tell your daughter, 'If you get an A on the test I'll give you $5,' then you are creating a situation in which your child is motivated by money, not by the positive feelings of success."

While offering your kids cash incentives isn't a smart idea, you should embrace opportunities to celebrate their hard work and achievements. "Going out for ice cream or a special meal after a good report card or musical performance or some other achievement is a way of celebrating children's hard work and persistence," Donahue says.

Praising your kids is an important part of building their self-esteem and confidence. But before you break out in applause, there are some important dos and don'ts to keep in mind that will help your child find value in your words of encouragement:

Be specific. Instead of saying, "You're such a good baseball player," say, "You hit the ball really hard and you are an excellent first baseman." Being specific is much better and helps kids identify with their special skill, Berman says.

Be genuine. Praise should always be genuine. Kids have a way of knowing when your praise is insincere, and when it is, you lose trust. Worse yet, they become insecure because they don't believe your positive words, and they find difficulty in telling the difference between when you really mean it and when you don't, Berman says.

Encourage new activities. "Praise kids for trying new things, like learning to ride a bike or tie their shoelaces, and for not being afraid to make mistakes," Donahue says.

Don't praise the obvious. "Try not to overdo praise about a child's attributes: 'You're so smart, handsome, pretty, bright, talented, gifted,'" Donahue says. "Parents and grandparents are, of course, going to indulge in some of this, and that is OK. But if your kids hear a constant litany of praise, it will begin to sound empty to them and have little meaning."

Say it when you mean it. Saying, "Good job," when you mean it or, "Boy, you really worked hard on that paper," tells children that, as parents, you recognize the value of their hard work and efforts, Donahue says. It also tells them that you know the difference between when they work hard at something and when it comes easy.

Focus on the process. Praise children for their effort and hard work, not for their inherent talents. Donahue says, "Remember, it's the process not the product that matters. Not all kids will be fantastic athletes or brilliant students or accomplished musicians. But children who learn to work hard and persevere have a special talent. As I like to say, pluggers go far in life."