At face value, praise seems harmless, kind, and helpful. We’ve explored the pitfalls in a previous post, so read that first if you haven’t already.
Praise and encouragement can sound similar, so let’s have a look at the differences between each, and why encouragement is so much more powerful.
When we offer praise, we are providing approval. The focus is on our thoughts, feelings, and evaluations of the child. In other words, we are telling the child that they have met our standards. For example:
“You were so polite at the party today, you’re such a good boy.”
Child thinks: When I forget to be polite, I am a bad boy.
“Wow, I really love your drawing!”
Child thinks: “My self-worth is determined by other people’s opinions.” OR “I know this isn’t a good drawing, adults lie.”
“I’m so proud of you!”
The focus is on the feelings of the adult and detracts from the child’s effort.
“You got all A’s. You’re so clever!”
Child thinks: “I need to be clever to be acknowledged.” OR “If I don’t get A’s, I am not clever.”
So how does encouragement compare? Encouragement acknowledges effort and recognises feelings, rather than achievements.
“I noticed that you were very polite to everyone at the party today.”
Recognising the child’s polite behaviour without adding evaluation. Children are not good or bad. All children are good.
“You drew a butterfly!”
Stating the action without positive or negative judgement allows the child to option of self-evaluation.
“You can be proud of yourself.”
The focus is on the child’s achievement and emotions.
“You worked really hard and got all A’s. Your grades are the result of your effort!”
Focus is on the effort, not the result.
Children often seek out our attention. “Mom, Dad, look at me! I’m so high in the tree!” They do want to be noticed, but they don’t need our evaluations; we add these without being requested. At first, it might feel strange to say things like, “I see you, you’re in a tree!” Instead of, “wow, you’re the best climber!” After a bit of practice, it gets easier. You only need to state what you see, which acknowledges the child without any judgement. This has the added bonus of always being an honest remark. “You drew a butterfly” is still true even if to you it looks like a messy scribble.
You may be thinking that this is completely ridiculous and that these subtle word choices don’t make a difference. The thing is, we will likely only see the fruits of these choices in decades to come when our children are grown and have fully developed their sense of self. In an age of instant gratification, it’s difficult to focus on the long-term goal. Your goals for your children are yours to make, so I encourage you to look at who you want your children to be when they are adults. Conscious parenting is about evaluating our own goals and exploring how to best support your child in achieving these goals.
For the next week, try to notice how many times a day you use praise and see if you can convert some of these statements into encouragement. Ready? Go!