Praise: to express a favorable judgement of, to glorify
Encourage: to inspire with courage, spirit, hope, to advance, foster, boost
You can tell from the definitions above that praise and encouragement are very different. Still, parents often believe they are encouraging their child when they are actually praising them. If phrases like, “You’re the best!” and “Great picture!” seem familiar, then this article is for you, because your words may be having the opposite effect of what you intend.
Current research indicates that too much praise can actually undermine your child’s confidence, independence, motivation and self-determination. It can also create anxiety, a need to be validated by others, and focus on external versus internal reinforcement, all of which can set children up for failure. Wow, sounds like a lot of consequences for such a well-intended compliment!
Praise has a negative impact because it is an evaluation – a judgement – of your child and their actions. Praise uses words that judge, like good, great, smart, pretty and best. It focuses on the outcome rather than the process. Praise may also arise as a reaction based on your desire to make your children feel good, rather than an accurate response to what your child is actually feeling, achieving, or trying to communicate. For example, if a child is scared to do something, but finally builds up the courage, an adult who whoops and hollers praise, may overwhelm the child.
Children who are overly praised learn to focus on getting a favorable judgement. They may start to fear getting a non-favorable judgement or not being able to achieve at the level of “great”, “wonderful”, or “the best”.
Does this mean praise can never be used? Of course not. Sometimes praise is appropriate, like when your child wins a race or accomplishes something they worked long and hard for, or when your child feels equally excited about their own accomplishment.
Encouragement uses words that notice and are specific to a child’s effort, like “You worked hard to do well on your test” or “I noticed that you shared your toys today”. It focuses on the process of a child’s experience and helps children develop an awareness of their actions, skill, and internal states (thoughts and feelings). Encouragement can be used at any time.
Learning to Use Encouragement
It can take time – a long time – to learn how to use the language of encouragement, so be patient. If you catch yourself automatically praising then just add in words of encouragement like “That’s great…of you to have tried so hard” or “You’re the best…you were really persistent.”
Remember that some praise is okay and even appropriate. If’s not if you praise, but how much you praise and the overall message your child internalizes.
Examples of Praise and Encouragement
PRAISE SOUNDS LIKE: Great job!
ENCOURAGE SOUNDS LIKE: You worked hard to get an A.
ENCOURAGEMENT HELPS YOUR CHILD: Concentrate on the skill and effort rather than the outcome. This helps children focus on what it takes to accomplish their goals.
PRAISE SOUNDS LIKE: You are the best!
ENCOURAGEMENT SOUNDS LIKE: You shared your toys today.
ENCOURAGEMENT HELPS YOUR CHILD: Keep their expectations of themselves realistic. Unrealistic expectations can lead to fear of failure because no one always performs at their best level.
PRAISE SOUNDS LIKE: Your picture is so pretty.
ENCOURAGEMENT SOUNDS LIKE: I notice that you used a lot of colors.
ENCOURAGEMENT HELPS YOUR CHILD: Decide how they feel about their accomplishments.
PRAISE SOUNDS LIKE: Awesome!
ENCOURAGEMENT SOUNDS LIKE: You looked excited when you were chosen first.
ENCOURAGEMENT HELPS YOUR CHILD: Notice and develop an appreciation for their feelings.
PRAISE SOUNDS LIKE: You are the best helper.
ENCOURAGEMENT SOUNDS LIKE: You put all your toys away quickly.
ENCOURAGEMENT HELPS YOUR CHILD: Refrain from comparing themselves to others.
PRAISE SOUNDS LIKE: You’re so smart.
ENCOURAGEMENT SOUNDS LIKE: You figured that out on your own.
ENCOURAGEMENT HELPS YOUR CHILD: Feel proud of their efforts and self-determination.
PRAISE SOUNDS LIKE: Woohoo! Yeah! You did it! Woohoo!
ENCOURAGEMENT SOUNDS LIKE: You were very scared to jump off the diving board and I saw that you finally decided to go for it. How was it?
ENCOURAGEMENT HELPS YOUR CHILD: Feel like you are attuned to their feelings. That you noticed what is important to them about their experience.