How to Praise Your Kids

Praise is a tricky thing, because at first glance it seems so easy. You say “Attaboy,” or “Awesome job,” give a pat on the back, and everything’s great, right?

Uh, wrong.

Science is showing us that when it comes to praise, kids operate like light switches. Certain types of praise switch kids on by boosting their motivation and willingness to take risks. Other kind of praise switch kids off.

There are lots of interesting experiments here (many by Carol Dweck), but here’s the takeaway: avoid praising for abilities, and instead praise for effort.

Here’s why: when you praise for ability — that is, when tell someone they’re a natural-born Einstein, or a Mini-Michael Jordan — they unconsciously tend to protect that status by taking fewer risks and forgoing opportunities to make more effort. (After all, we’re status-based creatures — why risk genius status?) When you praise for effort, on the other hand, studies show that kids are willing to take on harder tasks without complaint, and perform better.

The problem, however, is that we parents and coaches seem to be hard-wired to praise in exactly the wrong way. We instinctively praise ability and status. When a kid shows us their latest magic-marker drawing, we say, “What a great artist you are!”  When a kid does his first trick on a snowboard, we say, “Hey, you’re little Shawn White!”

The key to effective praise is to focus on the process, not the person. Put the emphasis on what was produced, not on the kid. This sounds sort of chilly, but the effect is actually the opposite. For instance:

  • So, instead of saying, “Wow! You’re such a great artist!”
  • Say: “I love that picture! Tell me about it.”
  • Instead of, “You’re an awesome snowboarder!”
  • Say: “That was great! How’d you figure out how to do that?”
  • Instead of, “Another A-plus! You’re so brilliant at math!”
  • Say: “Another A-plus! You must’ve really studied hard for that test.”

See what I mean? Instead of just being a cheerleader (You’re so awesome!), use praise to go a notch deeper: to start conversations, spark reflection, and create more of a bond.

In the search for effective praise, the best example I’ve ever come across consists of just two words: Well done!

You don’t need to rehash the accomplishment, or elevate the kid to superstar status. All you need to do it be present, and to show that you saw what they did, appreciate it.

Well done.

What other phrases work for you?