Have you ever wondered what is the best way to encourage children and help them build healthy self-esteem? We often think that giving them praise and compliments is a good way to help them build their self-esteem.
But what if telling our kids “you’re amazing” wasn’t as helpful as we might have thought?
From my reading and research into the Montessori method and positive parenting, I have come to notice a common theme: giving praise isn’t actually really recommended…
In fact, recent studies in the fields of affective and social neuroscience tell us that this could even be counter-productive in boosting your child’s self-esteem!!
Ok, so, if we don’t give compliments to our children, how can we encourage them?
In this article I will cover :
- The difference between praise and encouragement
- Why praise and compliments are counter-productive
- How to encourage your child without relying on praise or rewards
- Some examples of encouragement
- The 4 attitudes you can take on to encourage your child
Let’s get into it!
Praise: what impact do they have on our children’s self-esteem?
“Your drawing is amazing, sweetie,” “You are so kind” “Wow, you got the highest grade in your whole class“
Yes, you guessed it, these are all examples of compliments. But as well as that, these are phrases that contain value judgements. Of course, they are positive judgements, but they put “labels” on our children and their achievements.
Parents have long been told that praising their children is good for their development.
But in reality, that is not always the case.
When a child gets used to receiving constant praise, they start to concentrate on what others think of them and become dependent on the judgement and opinions of others.
Therefore, they risk growing into adults who constantly seek the approval of others before acting and falling into a pattern of emotional dependence.
Compliments make children dependent on the judgements of others, they do not lead to autonomy. They give extrinsic motivation and confidence, meaning that confidence and motivation do not come from the person, but from what others expect or think. – Dr. Catherine Gueguen, Heureux d’apprendre à l’école (Happy to learn in school).
Another negative outcome of constant praise is that a child may feel pressure, or even anxiety to live up to expectations.
‘If I get a bad grade at school, it will make them love me less’
If they don’t live up to expectations, anxiety may lead them to lie, blame someone else, or even hide things from you.
The difference between praise / compliment and encouragement
It may seem that there is just a fine line between compliments and encouragement, but the difference is actually very significant!
Praise / Compliment :
When we use compliments, we ‘express a positive judgement’: we label our child and their actions. They then fall into the habit of living their lives through the eyes of adults, who decide for them if they are kind, intelligent or if they have done something right etc.
A child motivated by compliments tries, above everything else, to please others. To live up to expectations, their actions need systematic approval. Later, in adulthood, this obsession can risk discouraging them from taking initiative.
Encouraging a child is “filling them with courage”, it consists of recognizing their progress, efforts and struggles. Encouragement does not put labels on children nor on the result of their efforts. But, we show our interest in what our child has done and invite them to express their own feelings.
Encouragement cultivates the long-term development of self-confidence and internal motivation: this can prevent our children from becoming overly dependent on other people’s opinions.
The most valuable lessons happen when children apply themselves deeply to what they do, and not when they worry about the judgement of others. – Faber et Mazlish
How to help develop self-esteem in children?
So, we have seen how compliments can be counter-productive.
But how can we encourage children?
Actually, it’s pretty simple: to encourage our kids, all we need to do is give them our time and show interest in what they do.
We can describe, outline and emphasise their actions, the effort that they put in, their feelings and their interests without our words carrying judgement.
Is it still not clear whether what you say to your child is encouragement or a compliment?
In Jane Nelsen’s book, Positive Discipline, she outlines four questions to ask yourself to help you understand the difference:
- Does what I say encourage my child to self-assess, or to be dependent on the judgement of others?
- Am I being respectful or condescending?
- Am I considering my child’s perspective, or just my own?
- Would I say the same thing to a friend?
Here are some examples of what we can say to our children, following these guidelines.
1. “I can see that you have used both orange and blue to colour your picture…“
We show our interest in the detail they have put into their drawing, we showcase what they have done. This is very different from saying ‘your drawing is wonderful’
2. “Can you show me how you built that?“
Here, we initiate a conversation about their creation and encourage them to share their knowledge while positively highlighting their learning process.
3. “Your effort has really paid off!” “What do you think you have learned?“
We highlight the effort and progress they have made and invite them to express themselves and give their own opinion.
4. “Thank you for your help, that helped me finish dinner more quickly!” “I appreciate your help!“
Here, we express gratitude for what they have done. But, saying ‘you are so sweet to have helped us’ doesn’t have the same effect since it carries a value judgement.
5. “What do you think about that?’ What are you feeling?“
We help our children to self-assess and to feel valued, without seeking praise from others.
1. Be connected: present, attentive and available
Encouragement can be something as simple as giving your child a hug. Your presence, readiness to listen and to spend time with your child are all essential elements to comfort your little one, to give them the motivation to do better and to give them the wings they need to fly!
To connect with your child in an encouraging way, it’s essential to put yourself in their shoes, to understand their feelings and their needs, even if they don’t exactly align with our own feelings : it’s also important to know how to accept all their emotions without distorting them.
Here are some examples :
If your child is frustrated because they think they didn’t perform well at football
We might be tempted to say: ‘but you play so well!’ to cheer them up
But this doesn’t actually do much good because, in their mind, they are frustrated, and your comment doesn’t change anything. Instead of this, we could cheer them up by saying that it’s normal not to always perform at our best and to encourage them to talk about it.
‘OK, I see that you are frustrated. Everyone feels like that from time to time. Do you want to talk about it? What can you do to improve next time?’
If they are sad or have failed at something like a test or competition…
There’s not much point just saying ‘Oh, sweetie, I understand that you are disappointed’. However, we can listen to them without judgement, take interest in their obstacles and offer to try and find a solution together.
For example, we can ask them what they think the strong and weak parts of their performance were. This approach means that we don’t focus solely on their weaknesses, but also encourage them to build on their strengths. Afterwards, we can ask them what they could do better next time. This encourages kids to think for themselves about what they can do to make progress, which in turn helps them to develop their skills and to find solutions.
In order to encourage children, it is better to concentrate our attention on the learning process, rather than focussing on ‘success’ or the final outcome.
For example, you can outline what you have observed and ask them questions about their feelings:
“I saw that you have been working really hard for a while (Observation) How do you feel now that you have finished this piece of work?” “Did you enjoy learning about that?” “Which part was the most difficult for you to grasp?’
When a child is faced with a challenging situation, we should not use phrases like:
“Be a big boy, don’t cry!” or “I believe in you, you are the best and you can do it.”
When we use this type of phrase, we are focusing on their success. Children then start feeling that they have to be brave and strong in order to succeed. This can put too much pressure on children and fearing failure can paralyze their future efforts.
We should keep in mind that the learning process is the most important thing. So it’s more meaningful to ask them questions that could help them overcome obstacles or problems. In this way, this can help them reach their objectives. Here are some examples of what you can say:
“Let’s think about it together, how could you…”, ” What was that task all about?” “What is the next step in order to?”
When a child makes a mistake, it’s important not to lie to them and to explain that it’s normal if they don’t know how to do everything straight away. Making mistakes isn’t the same thing as failure, it’s a natural step in the learning curve.
In these moments of difficulty, if they see that you are present and that you don’t pass judgement, they realize that they can always come to you and count on your support. THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING! That gives children the tools they need to try again, and to eventually spread their wings and fly!
Whether it is to their siblings, or to their school friends, it is not recommended to judge children in comparison to others. This may not seem like such a big deal but for their self-confidence, always being compared to others is really devastating for a child who is building his or her own sense of self.
“Wow, your brother got a good grade at school! You should try to be more like him.”
Far from offering encouragement or motivation to do better, this type of phrase creates a negative self-image. How do you think they feel when they see that their brother achieved something and they didn’t?
They could end up thinking that they are not loved and that their brother (sister, friend) is smarter, that others can do things better than them. They could have the feeling that their parents will only love them if they achieve certain things.
And of course, that was never your intention. But unfortunately, comparison evokes a feeling of inferiority, jealousy and does not encourage children.
It’s not a good tactic to offer children rewards to encourage them. If good behaviour and hard work are systematically rewarded with treats or gifts, a special outing, ice cream or their allowance, a child won’t rely on internal motivation to do things for themselves. This doesn’t encourage children to develop a real aptitude and to accomplish things for their own sake.
Following the same logic, punishing a child doesn’t encourage them to work harder or to behave better. For example, not letting them do something they want to do over the weekend so that they work harder is totally counter-productive… Far from “teaching them a lesson”, the punishment could make them so angry and resentful that they won’t be able to concentrate on their homework.
Again, the best way to encourage children is to show a keen interest in what they are doing. It is important not to focus on the idea of success or failure.
“A child needs encouragement like a plant needs water” – Rudolf Dreikurs
As we have seen throughout this article, compliments can make a child dependent. Long term, they could become incapable of acting without the approval of someone else, which could become a real obstacle in their adult life.
I can testify to this, as I received a lot of compliments as a child. But once I became a teenager and a young adult, I really lacked self-confidence and I was always seeking the approval of others! I had to work really hard on myself to undo this pattern… work that is still ongoing!
Motivating your child involves more than anything else being present for all the steps of the learning process: their progress, efforts and challenges. It also involves providing guidance and support so that they can understand and fully express their own feelings about what they have accomplished.
When children receive repeated encouragement, they:
- Do things for their own sake
- Are motivated to make progress
- Experience internal satisfaction
- Learn to think for themselves
- Develop self-esteem and self-confidence
- Are able to concentrate on their own activities without comparing themselves to others
- Can flourish into a well-rounded person