When you were a child, were you one who received a lot of praise from parents or teachers? “Good job!” or “Way to go,” or maybe even, “You’re so smart!” might have been commonly heard in your experience. On the surface, it may seem that growing up in an environment of constant praise is an ideal childhood, but research now shows us that praise can be a complicated factor in children’s development. Learning about the benefits and drawbacks of praise can help us know how to use it most effectively to support our children.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Praise
The complicated role that praise can play in a child’s development makes it worth exploring. Despite our well-intentioned efforts to make our children feel good by praising them, research tells us that some types of praise tend to have more positive consequences than others. Research shows that praising children for their abilities, such as being “smart” or “good at math,” impacts how they interpret their success but also their failures. With this type of praise, children begin to learn that if their success is due to their innate intelligence, then their failure must mean that they are no longer intelligent.1 Praise that focuses on a child’s abilities or state of being can also undermine their motivation. They might think that if succeeding in a certain task or skill is simply due to innate qualities, then there is little they can do to improve their performance if they are not succeeding.2
Similarly, insincere praise can also backfire. Some children can detect when praise is insincere, depending on age and cognitive maturity. If praise from adults is viewed as insincere, it may not only lack any positive benefits, but may serve to undermine the child’s motivation.3
However, praising children in ways that focus less on their abilities and more on their efforts4 can impact their development in more positive ways. For example, rather than saying a child is “good at math,” a parent or teacher might praise a child for the persistence and effort they showed on their math assignment. Perhaps the child tried new strategies or listened well to instructions while completing their challenging math assignment. This type of praise that focuses on specific efforts the child makes tends to be more effective in keeping the child motivated. Unlike ability-focused praise, effort-focused praise highlights factors that are within the child’s control to change and thus has a greater impact.5 Moreover, when praising a child’s efforts, we are pointing out tangible actions that have worked to improve their performance on the task. This way, the child knows which specific actions or habits they can use again on this task or other tasks.
Beyond school performance or task completion, praising children can play a positive role in our daily interactions with our children. As parents, many of us become accustomed to primarily pointing out our children’s failings or misbehavior. We notice when they fail to clean up their toys or share them with their siblings. However, research finds that in many contexts, including parenting, praising a person’s positive qualities can not only help their confidence but also enhance their relationships.6 With this in mind, we can begin a new habit of being more aware of our child’s positive behaviors. We might point out when they empathetically consider a friend’s feelings or remember to brush their teeth without being asked. Being specific about praising our child’s efforts at being responsible or conscientious is another simple way to reinforce the development of positive qualities.
Tips for Using Praise Effectively
The complex ways in which praise can impact children might make you feel uncertain about uttering any praise to your child. Rest assured that by keeping a few simple ideas in mind, you can learn to use praise effectively in your home.
Be Specific: Although many of us may have grown up with vague praise like, “good job” or “way to go,” research tells us that specific praise is much more effective for children. Specific2 praise helps children understand, in particular, what they did well, so they can use the strategy or do the action again in the future. At home, for example, you might specifically praise children for helping a sibling, using kind words to make a request, or getting ready for school on time.
Focus on Efforts or Strategies: As we know from the research, praise focused on children’s efforts tends to be more motivating and effective than praising their abilities or state of being (“being smart”). It can be especially beneficial for children and adolescents to focus praise on their use of strategies1 that were effective in helping them improve their performance or skill. For example, if your child tried a new reading strategy, and it helped with fluency, you could praise them for trying it. Another example might be if they used a strategy you suggested for resolving a conflict with their sibling instead of fighting. This could be something to point out with praise. By focusing our praise on our children’s efforts and use of strategies, they tend to feel more motivated to continue them.
Avoid Overdoing It: We have probably all heard of parents who shower their children with effusive praise for almost anything they do. As you might expect, research shows that this type of lavish praise does not tend to foster genuine self-esteem in children. In contrast, this “over the top” praise actually undermines children’s self-confidence2 and can sometimes make them wary of taking on challenges for fear that they might not receive such praise.
Praise to Motivate and Support
All children crave and need their parents’ approval. However, praising children excessively to meet this need can have some unforeseen consequences. Instead, we can learn to use effective and well-chosen praise as a way of supporting and motivating our children. When used skillfully, praise can be one more tool in our parenting toolbox to help our children meet their goals.
Preview Blurb: How often do you praise your children? Are you the parent who offers a “good job” at every opportunity or only praises your children on rare occasions? Surprisingly, the impact of praise on children is not as clear-cut as it might seem. Discover what types of praise are most effective for children and the role it can play in their development.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- Corpus, J. H., & Good, K. A. (2021). The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation Revisited. In Brummelman, E. (Ed.), Psychological Perspectives on Praise. Abington, UK: Routledge. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.reed.edu/psychology/motivation/assets/downloads/Corpus_Good_2021.pdf
- Goodwin, C. (2022). Should Parents Really Stop Praising Their Children? Psychology Today. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/parenting-translator/202203/should-parents-really-stop-praising-their-children
- Mizokawa, A. (2018). Association Between Children’s Theory of Mind and Responses to Insincere Praise Following Failure. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01684/full
- Xing, S., Gao, X., Jiang, Y., Archer, M., & Liu, X. (2018) Effects of Ability and Effort Praise on Children’s Failure Attribution, Self-Handicapping, and Performance. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01883/full
- Gunderson, E. A., Donnellan, M. B., Robins, R. W., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2018). The Specificity of Parenting Effects: Differential Relations of Parent Praise and Criticism to Children’s Theories of Intelligence and Learning Goals. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 173, 116–135. Retrieved July 21, 2022 from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2018.03.015
- Research Shows Praising Children Five Times a Day Has Positive Impact. De Montfort University. (2019). Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.dmu.ac.uk/about-dmu/news/2019/october/research-shows-praising-children-five-times-a-day-has-positive-impact.aspx