Learning Guide 4 - 5: Skillful Praise
Praise can be tricky. On one hand, having your own cheerleading section feels good! On the other hand, when we praise children unskillfully, our words can diminish a child’s confidence, serve to make them feel less seen and celebrated, and cause them to lose focus and joy in their own work.
For many years, parents were told that constant praise was the key to their children’s wellbeing and confidence. You will still find places that advocate for this kind of praise. For many of us, it is natural to clap and say “good job!” when we start seeing our little ones achieve something they have been working toward. Children are also very responsive to praise from their beloved adults, so adults find that praise can be an effective way to guide their behavior. But constant, insubstantial praise can have negative long term effects.
Celebrating your child’s achievements and showing them you are proud of their work is absolutely a great idea. There is a skillfulness to praise that can help us give our children that positive reaction without inadvertently harming them.
Why to avoid “good job”
The typical way of praising is to simply say “Good job!” or “Nice work!”. We might even clap and throw in a “Hooray!” What is the harm in that?
A potential risk is that when we praise this way we can break the child’s concentration on the work they are doing. An essential piece of a child’s work at this age is developing concentration and focus, and we want to support them by stepping back and letting them focus on their work. In addition, the pleasure they get from your celebration can overshadow the pleasure they get from their own work. Over time, this can encourage them to do their work for your pleasure instead of allowing them to follow their own interest, curiosity and enjoyment. This type of praise can also foster a risk aversion - since they want that positive response from you every time.Ideally, they can feel joy for their own work when they deem it well done.
If we want to support creativity, connection, a growth mindset, concentration and an ability to judge one’s work for one’s self we need a different way to let them know we are celebrating them.
Tips for skillful praise
- Wait until you are asked: If your child is doing something awesome, take time to just observe. Try to really step back and just watch. Are they smiling? Do they look frustrated or pleased? Are they ready for the next thing? Try to disappear into the background for them. Even snapping a picture can break their attention - unless it’s done very carefully. When their concentration and focus on their own work shifts to you - then enter with your skillful praise.
- Let them know what you are celebrating: Skillful praise celebrates your child’s efforts by describing what you see. For example: “Wow! That top spun for so long!” You could even add a level of appreciation for their work “You’ve been working on getting it to spin for many days- and you finally did it!” This gives them information about what you are noticing and celebrating! When you praise specifically, it lets them know you were really seeing and appreciating their work.
- Foster creativity: You might be shown pieces of artwork or buildings many times a day. If we reply “nice work”, children will often feel that their work has not actually been seen and appreciated. If we can find something specific about their work, and talk about why we like it, the results can be positive and powerful. Your response might be something like “You used a lot of yellow in this picture. The way the lines squiggle out reminds me of sun rays.”
- Ask them: Your evaluation of their work is important to your children. Asking them how they feel about their work helps them know that their evaluation is equally important. After giving some skillful praise you might turn the focus back to them “How do you feel about the rainbow you just drew - are you pleased with how it turned out?” or “tell me what you like in this picture” You can also center the process rather than the product. You might say “Was that fun to build?” “Do you like working with watercolors?”
- Cultivating a growth mindset: If we want our children to know that failure is part of every process, we have to give them some appreciation for the process as well as the product. With skillful praise, you can celebrate their efforts by saying something like “You keep trying to get the ball in the hole! It is not working out, but you keep trying!” or “I love that you keep working on drawing that tree to get it just the way you want it”
Let’s be real
It is highly likely that you will respond sometimes to your children’s achievements with shouts of joy and “good job!”. When you do, strive to be kind to yourself and follow up with some skillful praise after.
We have a few resources on our website that connect to the idea of skillful praise. You can check them out here:
There is wonderful information about praise in this book!