Using Praise to Build Children's Character

praising a child
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There’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about whether or not today’s children have a healthy self-esteem. Some people argue that parents can’t possibly give kids too much self-esteem because the tough world will do their part to tear kids down anyway. Bullies, tough teachers, cut-throat coaches, and future bosses will make sure your child doesn’t get an overinflated ego.

But other people argue that giving too much praise leads to overindulged children. They think kids are being raised to think they’re the best and the greatest at everything they do. They argue that parents should scale back on the heavy-duty doses of praise.

The truth is, both arguments have some merit. While praise is generally a healthy part of parenting children, simply showering kids with tons of accolades isn’t necessarily helpful. But if it’s used correctly, it can be used to help kids build character instead of simply overinflating their egos.

Here are five examples of ways in which you can use praise as a tool to build and promote healthy character, rather than simply overinflate their egos:

1. Praise Your Child's Willingness to Consider Other People's Feelings

Situation: Your child’s friend dropped his sandwich on the ground at the playground so your child shared half of his sandwich with him.

Praise that Inflates the Ego: “Great job always being so generous with everyone.”

Praise that Builds Character: “That was nice of you to offer half of your sandwich to your friend. That made him smile.”

Praising your child for “always being generous” puts the focus on getting an accolade from you. Also, it’s unlikely that your child is “always” generous with “everyone.” By pointing out that it made his friendly smile, you’ll show him that sharing should be about doing a kind deed for another child, not about getting praise from an adult. This type of praise encourages your child to do the right thing even when there’s not an adult watching.

2. Praise Your Child's Efforts Instead of the Results

Situation: Your child shows you his report card and he got all A’s.

Praise that Inflates the Ego: “You’re such a smart kid. You always get the best grades.”

Praise that Builds Character: “I like how you’ve been working so hard this year. Your effort is clearly paying off.”

Praising your child for the outcome puts the focus on the final product. It may encourage your child to only do things where she’s certain she’ll excel. By praising her efforts, you’ll show her that hard work is more valuable than getting good grades.

3. Praise Your Child's Ability Learn From Mistakes

Situation: Your child is struggling in his math class and today he shows you he got a passing grade on his most recent test.

Praise the Inflates the Ego: “Wow, you passed your test. Great job! I knew you could bring that grade up.”

Praise that Builds Character: “When you were struggling in math, you didn’t give up and you learned you’re your mistakes. That’s important because there will sometimes be challenges in life and we have to learn how to work hard to get through those challenges.”

Praising your child for passing a test will only point out the importance of succeeding. Reminding her that she learned from her past mistakes can help remind her that mistakes offer a learning opportunity. It’s also important to include some life lessons about hard work and overcoming life’s challenges with integrity. 

4. Praise Your Child for Behaving Respectfully

Situation: Your child showed good sportsmanship during a soccer game.

Example of Praise: “Great job today!”

Better Way to Praise: “You showed some good sportsmanship on the field today. You shook hands with the other team, didn’t complain when you didn’t like some of the calls the referee made, and you helped someone up when you accidentally knocked her down. That’s an important part of being on a team.”

When you say things like, “Great job,” your child may not even know what you’re referring to. Label your praise so it’s specific and so your child understands why you’re praising her. Rather than simply praising your child for her skills or talents, point out the way she behaves toward other people and discusses how it impacts others. Your child's ability to behave respectfully is far more important than whether she won or lost a competition.

5. Praise Your Child's Hard Work

Situation: Your child makes the all-star baseball time when you weren’t expecting it.

Example of Praise: “Wow, you proved us wrong. We didn’t think you’d make the team over all those other kids.”

Better Way to Praise: “The coach must have noticed you’ve been working really hard this season and he decided you earned a spot on the all-star team.”

Avoid giving back-handed compliments where you point out your child’s weaknesses and don’t compare your child to other kids. That can set your child up to want to be the “best.” Instead, praise her efforts and make it clear that sometimes effort pays off but avoid giving your child unrealistic expectations. Make it clear that hard work doesn’t always equal success and praise your child when she shows a willingness to pick herself back up after a failure.

Often, it's easier to praise your child's characteristics and accomplishments than it is to point out those character-building life lessons. But, if you look for them, you'll find plenty of opportunities to praise your child's behavior and efforts.

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