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Done correctly, praise can be motivating; it serves to validate our pride and pleasure in our achievements. The ugly truth however, is that much of the praise we give can be demeaning, insincere and detrimental to self-esteem.

Bland and generic, comments such as “well done,” or “good job” and especially, “you got all the answers right, I’m so proud of you,” are prime examples. This kind of praise can turn once confident children who were happy to explore and take risks, into “praise junkies.” They start to constantly seek the validation and the opinions of others to feel good about themselves, over and above their own opinions. They literally become dependent on praise, and like any other drug, the cravings soon overpower the feel-good factor it once gave.

What we mean when we praise is to empower and enable. If we feel motivated, we stick at tasks for longer, are more resilient, achieve more of what we set out to do and enjoy challenges, as well as better mental health. As children get older, approval from adults they see as role-models becomes increasingly significant. Insincere, insignificant or praise that focuses on intelligence rather than process is harmful, whereas genuine, specific and truthful praise does exactly what it was intended.

Here are 7 strategies to use praise positively, genuinely and effectively.

  1. Focus on what you want to see again

Praise needs to be specifically targeted, “It’s great to see you and your sister getting on so well together. I love that you’re finding ways to share your toys.” If you focus on what you want to keep seeing, behaviours such as taking initiative, responsibility, being kind, tidying up without being asked – these are the things that children will want to repeat again and again. They learn these behaviours and the intrinsic rewards they bring. “Well done for playing nicely” – well – what does that mean exactly? What is “nice”? It doesn’t identify what they are doing well, and how they can repeat it in the future. “Thank you for tidying up after the game without being asked – that’s so mature and thoughtful of you.”

  1. Be genuine

When praising children, teenagers and adults alike, body language says far more than words. In fact, research agrees, body language has far more impact than what is said alone. Face the person you are talking to, smile genuinely and compliment or praise at their eye level. Meaning what you say is far more positive than showering kids with praise that soon becomes background noise, and meaningless.

  1. Focus on process not the outcome

The process, time, effort and commitment children put into achieving the result, is far more important to praise, than the result itself. Their attitude and determination to score a goal, learn some music, tie their shoe-laces, learn the times-tables, etc are what fosters resilience and a positive attitude to life-long learning. It is this process they need to keep repeating to foster their curiosity, take risks, try new things, make mistakes and keep on-going. By purely focussing on the academic attainment or winning at everything, what you are, inadvertently saying, is that perfection is more important than the process. Therefore, when they don’t get 100%, they feel like they have failed – no matter what anyone says otherwise. If winning and perfection are the only outcomes linked to praise, the pressure is huge, and realistically there will be more “failures” than successes.

  1. Tell the Truth

Praise motivates and we all need a boost every now and then. When presented with some rather dubious art work, don’t gush and say it’s the, “best painting you’ve ever seen.”  It isn’t, and kids know it. They have however, taken pride in it, enjoyed the process and want to give it to you as a sign of their love. Give up the gushing and tell the truth instead, “I see you’re really trying to colour in the lines, or cut straight – it’s great to see you really taking time care with this.”

  1. Encourage new activities

Trying new things, whether it be an after-school club, a new sport, or a play-date with other children to the usual friends. This is not to say to sign your kids up for everything, but open their eyes to new things – go together and have a look at the new sports centre etc. Be positive about trying out new things, rather than, “You’re eating too much and getting fat so I’m signing you up for sports lessons.” If they express an interest, look into it, and then talk about a short commitment to going, especially if these things are expensive. Involving them in the decision and choice is important. If they are saying no to anything new, talk gently about their reasons behind it.

  1. Presence over presents

Kids may well love getting new toys (and there’s always something new that they have their eye on) yet what they really want is your time and attention – and for you to play the game with them. Your time is more important than the newest toy. Your attention is what they crave, and your interest in what interests them is pure gold. Watching them play football rather than being on the phone (even though you have hundreds of messages and emails to reply to), asking to hear them read (even if they are painfully slow), going on a date to get an ice-cream, playing in the garden or park, watching a film together is priceless.

  1. Bribery, bragging and blame

Ok – so these are 3 things that are real no-nos.

Bribery – e.g. giving your kids cash to get good grades, “I’ll give you 10 EURO to learn the 9 times table,” can be dis-empowering and focuses on extrinsic, rather than intrinsic reward.

Bragging about how great your kid is at swimming in front of other children and parents is really embarrassing. It’s annoying, and can cause your child to be teased by other kids, and puts them under huge pressure to perform. It also puts you in a position of having to back track if they don’t succeed next time, causing strain on your relationship with your child, and other adults.

Blame: “Well, finally you got it right”, or, “see, it wasn’t that hard was it?”, or, “this is what happens when you do actually put the effort in.” Imagine your partner, spouse or boss – or someone you respect – saying that to you. What impact would it have? You might feel embarrassed, shame, angry or resentment, and it might stop you sharing your “failures” with them.

It’s all about the process and we all get there in our own way, in our own time – and it’s great to feel proud of ourselves and our achievements when we do. What praise motivates you? Leave your reply in the comment box below.

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