One of my biggest goals as a mother is to make sure my children know and feel that they are loved, valued, and appreciated.
I try to send them this message a number of ways, one of which is through praise. What harm could ever come from a few encouraging words?
Well, according to a current body of research, plenty.
Here’s the deal as I understand it: Showering praise upon a child makes them crave it. Thus, they become motivated not by their achievement but by the resulting praise. As a result, they begin to shy away from tasks that challenge and grow them and instead gravitate toward tasks that are easier, that they know they can excel at, and will then earn them more praise when they complete them perfectly. The long-term result is a child who refuses to attempt difficult tasks that risk failure, gives up easily when challenged, misses out on growth opportunities, and has diminished overall achievement, motivation, and confidence.
It’s always great to hear you’re doing parenting well, isn’t it? *facepalm*
The good news is that there are ways for us to praise our children without this result. Instead of praising the end result, praise the process. Instead of praising a child for being smart, praise them for their effort.
Incorrect: “Great job finishing that puzzle! You’re so good at puzzles!”
Correct: “You worked really hard on that puzzle! I saw that it was hard for you, but you kept with it and figured it out. Well done!”
I’ll be honest. When I first heard this I thought it was stupid. But as I contemplated it I realized that it made a lot of sense, and that it’s hard to argue with replicated research and cross-cultural comparisons. So I thought it might be worth a shot.
It’s easier in theory than in practice, though. In all honesty, the “practice” in our house got downright awkward. It’s hard to stop words that seem to flow out of our mouths naturally and replace them with ones that seem…more calculated, forced, and unnatural. And really, we just want to scoop up our children and shower them with all the loving words we can muster so that they know how cherished they are.
But maybe that’s not the best thing all the time, and we need to be more mindful. I’m hoping that with practice, it will become easier.
Even if it doesn’t, I’m going to try and give myself grace. I can’t help but think that our own mothers didn’t sit around contemplating such ridiculous things as whether they were praising their children correctly or incorrectly. Research is great, but sometimes it just gives us more to worry about and makes this job of motherhood harder and more complicated. And as we’ve all been learning on this parenting journey, even if we do it 100% perfectly, there are never any guarantees anyway.