Updated: Sep 23, 2022
By Dr. Joanne Foster
What’s the best amount and kind of praise? Not too much, not too little, but just right. It’s honest, meaningful, deserved, and propels the child forward. With that in mind, how can parents praise young children so as to foster their learning, confidence, motivation, and well-being? What can—or should—parents do?
The following five recommendations provide sensible starting points for parents of little ones:
1. PRAISE YOUR CHILD’S EFFORT, RESILIENCE, AND PASSION.
These are three very important keys to success. Pay heed to what your child is actually doing and learning—and the various steps involved. This involves practicing skills, surmounting obstacles, and participating in appropriate, enjoyable, but stepped-up learning activities. Reinforce these practices as they might apply to different kinds of activities your child engages in, such as assembling puzzles, starting to read, developing motor skills (climbing, riding, swimming, dancing), and taking part in games. Parents can also demonstrate effort, resilience, and passion in relation to their own experiences. Ancient Greek poet Sophocles (496-406 BC) is credited with the words, “Success is dependent on effort.” That message has transcended time and still rings true.
2. THINK ABOUT THE CIRCUMSTANCES.
Child development has a lot to do with embracing opportunities and challenges—including creating the former and overcoming the latter. Therefore, parents can acknowledge and celebrate their child’s accomplishments in ways that convey parental pride or excitement—while simultaneously being astute about the here-and-now. Amidst the current COVID-related realities, the “here-and-now” and possibly the “henceforth” may be more challenging than usual.
Here are three suggestions to keep in mind:
Be thoughtful about word choice. The most effective praise is immediate, direct, and genuine. Not delayed, vague, or repetitive.
Consider the potential consequences and the benefits of your words.
Pick a suitable opportunity and place to communicate praise. This can differ depending on circumstances, including your child’s age, emotional state, attention, and receptivity.
3. BE ATTUNED TO YOUR CHILD’S COMFORT LEVEL.
Not all children are receptive to praise. It may make them feel self-conscious, embarrassed, or even doubtful. Be aware of their feelings. Children may also worry about the advent of much higher expectations. (Don’t pressure.) And, some kids are not sure how to respond to even a simple compliment. (Let them know that a smile or a quick “thank you” can suffice.) Psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore writes briefly about children’s possible discomfort in relation to praise. Click here.
4. BE AVAILABLE TO SCAFFOLD YOUR CHILD’S LEARNING.
It helps when children know their parents are there for assistance, guidance, and reassurance (as well as praise)–or even just to listen and watch them. Like construction workers who use scaffolds in building processes, parents can scaffold children’s learning processes by providing constructive reinforcement. An affirming message can help a child advance to the next level of competence. (“Good job! You used such lovely colors in your picture! What sort of frame could you design for it?”) Indicating ways in which a child can move forward and tackle the next steps, can augment both experience and understanding.
Here are some scaffolding tips:
Assure kids that they can “stretch” and try something difficult—without feeling that they might forfeit praise (or be admonished) if they struggle along the way.
Support interests in various domains (the arts, physical activities, collaborative play, and so on) that might complement children’s efforts.
Reveal practical ideas about how to pay attention to detail, answer questions, or do something tricky.
Help children make connections to their previous positive experiences (such as when they shared ideas or toys; enjoyed nature and learned about the environment; found solutions to problems; or acted kindly toward others).
5. PRAISE JOURNEYS NOT JUST END RESULTS.
Journeys involve curiosity, exploration, and initiative. Recognize children’s progress, and provide positive feedback when they exhibit motivation, conscientiousness, or a confident attitude. Other “journeying” suggestions:
Display broad smiles, a vigorous nod, a two-thumbs-up, or a high-five sign.
Ask children what they like about their work in progress—enabling self-validation of their efforts—and then reaffirm that.
Co-create opportunities for appropriately targeted guided practice that will comfortably extend headway.
Encourage children to think about the good learning choices and the different strategies they use while playing or completing a task.
Commend children’s actions when they evidence that they’re thinking critically, creatively, divergently, or graciously.
Praise children for what they achieve through effort, practice, learning, and persistence. Help them embrace enthusiasm as well—such as that feeling when they’re poised to begin something new, creative, or different, or on the verge of an exciting learning adventure! The five points listed above, and the many suggestions therein, will help young children realize and appreciate all they can do through 2021 and beyond—and recognize that their parents realize and appreciate it, too!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Joanne Foster is a parent, a multiple award-winning author, and an expert in gifted education and child development. Her most recent book is ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids: Hundreds of Ways to Inspire Your Child. She wrote Bust Your BUTS: Tips for Teens Who Procrastinate, and Not Now, Maybe Later: Helping Children Overcome Procrastination. She is co-author (with Dona Matthews) of Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Happily Productive Kids and Being Smart about Gifted Education. For book links and lots of resources, go to www.joannefoster.ca