PracticalDad:  Praise versus Overpraise

If I want to hear how wonderfully I’ve done, I take my essay to my mom.  But to really know how it is and how to improve it, I take it to my dad.

– Leah, age 17

Kids thrive with praise as it helps them learn to believe in themselves and their capabilities.  Praise to a child is akin to fertilizer to a plant.  But there has to be common sense applied or the praise goes from fertilizer to just another load of manure. 

I’m cognizant, both anecdotally and from dealing with kids, that there is a gap between what young people actually can do and what they think they can do.  My wish for my own kids is that they have a good sense of self-worth without thinking that every stroke of pen to paper is another Shakespearean Sonnet.  But that won’t happen if I simply offer blind, blanket praise.  So what are some things to consider on rendering praise?

  • When praising a small child for something that they’ve done, try to be specific and concrete on what you’re praising.  Show your child that you’ve paid attention because rendering blanket compliments teaches that nobody is paying attention.  With that comes a greater willingness to attempt to slip something past you when they’ve grown older. 
  • As your child ages, praise can be accompanied by constructive criticism but that’s purely a judgment call as to when to start.  Instead of offering constructive criticism however, one possibility is to sit with your child and then explore other ways of doing something.  How would it look if you did this?  How else might you do this?  This way, your kid starts to look at different alternatives without feeling as though he hasn’t done a good job.
  • Once your child is in school, you can praise but you have to consider whether this is indeed what the teacher is seeking.  Kids don’t listen well and they can do great work that simply isn’t what’s required.  So ask if there’s a rubric to guide the child.
  • Don’t be afraid to not praise the child if it’s not deserved.  This will typically happen with schoolwork and continuing to praise when it’s not warranted is a disservice.  Constructive criticism is a good place to start, mixing the critical comments with legitimately worthwhile remarks.  And if there’s an obvious lack of effort, call it that.  Full disclosure:  I once told one of my assignment-resistant kids that what was shown to me was crap.  However, this child was in the sixth grade at the time and not in preschool.
  • As your child grows, be sure to determine whether you’re being asked on a matter of style or a matter of fact.  There’s no bending if something is factually or technically wrong.  But kids will grow to develop different tastes and I try to be careful with the commentary if it pertains to the writing style.
  • Kids are not equal to one another in talent and skill; don’t make it a point to go overboard on praise if there are others who are clearly superior in that particular arena.  Praise for what they’ve done but don’t lay on the stuff about best on the field if they’re clearly not.  Temper yourself. 

Kids love to know that someone is behind them and paying attention to what they’re doing.  But as they age, they’ll be like Leah and appreciate that paying attention also means helping to teach them to be their best.

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