The power of praise: are you doing it properly?

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto 

Am I praising my child too much? Am I praising them enough? Am I saying the right things? These are all common considerations for parents wanting to help build their child's self-confidence and resilience.

Evidence tells us that children who are told that they have the skills and capabilities to manage challenging situations are more likely to put in greater effort and persist in the face of setbacks and adversity.

It can also help build a child's willingness to participate in activities that they might find difficult, unexciting or intimidating.

Here are a few practical tips to help you give effective and meaningful praise:

1. Emphasise the effort

Praising your child for the effort that they put into overcoming a challenge can increase their confidence and motivation when facing challenging situations. Effort-focused praise will help your child understand that achievement and success is a matter of hard work, some trial and error, and a lot of persistence.

Your child will then be more likely to believe that their abilities are not fixed – if they persist with a problem, they may resolve it.

For example, saying, "you did great on that test because you studied hard – well done," is more beneficial than, "you did great on that test – you're so clever." Similarly, "sharing your toys with your sister was a wonderful idea, it made her really happy," is better than, "you're such a kind boy."

Highlighting the specific effort or behaviour behind your child's success will help motivate them to address future problems, rather than shy away. They will also be better equipped to manage setbacks and mistakes because they will know that learning a new skill or increasing their efforts will increase the likelihood of accomplishing what they want.

2. Sincerity is essential

It's important to remember that praise needs to be sincere, heartfelt and said in a positive tone of voice so it's meaningful for your child. Also, think about the activities or behaviours that warrant praise. Frequent praise while learning a new task is good for younger children and you can reduce the frequency as they get better at it.


Older children who are frequently complimented for actions that only require minimal effort, or that they've succeeded at many times over, can begin to discount positive feedback. They didn't have to try hard, so your praise doesn't hold as much value. This runs the risk of the child starting to feel the same way when you commend them for bigger successes that required a lot of effort.

The sincerity of your effort-based praise can also be challenged if your child doesn't think you are positioned to genuinely evaluate how hard they worked.

Maybe the two of you hadn't really talked about the challenge, or they achieved it when they were away at a school camp or on a sports trip. It's a good idea to speak with the adult, such as a teacher or coach, who was directly involved in the achievement to find out more detail about the effort your child put in.

You can then phrase the compliment so it's believable. For example, "your coach let me know that you've been practising your goal-kicking every lunchtime, which is a big reason why you've been doing so well during the games."

3. Success doesn't equal intelligence

"You finished the puzzle – you're so smart." It may sound like a harmless kind of compliment, but it's actually the kind that you should try to avoid.

Linking your child's efforts or strengths with intelligence risks them believing that intelligence is the only thing that matters when overcoming a challenge. It can also convey that intelligence is a deep-seated trait that can't be changed.

As a result, your child may tend to feel overwhelmed and give up more easily when faced with future challenges that outstrip their abilities because they're not aware of how important effort and persistence are in accomplishing a goal.

Leith Sterling is the Executive Director, Child and Family at The Benevolent Society