There has been a movement in parenting in the past number of years that is generally referred to as the “self esteem movement”. The basics of this movement focus on raising a child’s self esteem through excessive praise, rewards, sticker charts, and other external motivators. While there’s nothing wrong with all of these things in and of themselves, they tend to be benign at best because we cannot “raise” someone else’s self esteem by giving them things or through telling them how great they are. In fact, it can actually backfire – sometimes sensitive kids can become praise junkies, who only feel good about themselves when someone else is praising or validating them. It can also lead to kids to feel as though they only matter when they are producing or performing, that the result is the main goal, not the process or the effort.
Encouragement, on the other hand, can go a long way toward fostering healthy self esteem in children. The goal of encouragement is to have the child believe in himself, not to judge himself by someone else’s standards or other external benchmarks.
So how do we know whether what we’re saying to our kids is encouragement or praise? In a nutshell, encouragement focuses on the act and the effort put forth, but praise focuses on the person and the result or the outcome (essentially rewarding perfection).
Here are some phrases from author Jane Nelsen that demonstrate the difference:
Praise –> Encouragement
You are such a good boy/girl. –> I appreciate your help.
You did it just like I told you. –> You figured it out for yourself.
All A’s, I’m going to give you a reward. –> You worked hard, you deserve it.
I’m so proud of you. –> You must be proud of yourself.
I like what you did! –>How do you feel about it?
You always look perfect. –>You are special and unique.
You always have the “right” answer. –> I have faith in you to learn from mistakes.
You are the best player on the team. –> You are a good team player.
I’m glad you listened to me. –> I have faith you in; I trust your judgment.
With more work you’ll get it right. –> Look how far you’ve come. You can do it.
Great! That’s what I expected. –> You can decide what is best for you.
You did it better than anyone else. –> You did your best and you don’t give up.
You really know how to please me. –> I love you no matter what.
You may recognize some things that you have said or regularly say, in the praise column. That’s ok. Sometimes praise is kind of nice to receive. It’s like candy: enjoyable on occasion, but probably not the healthiest staple for a diet. Encouragement on the other hand, allows kids to take responsibility for their own actions, see themselves as capable of making smart decisions for themselves, and learn that even when they make a mistake, they can overcome it. Encouragement lets our kids know that even when we don’t love their behaviour, we still love them, and that they never need to be embarrassed about admitting to us that they’re only human. It puts them first and keeps them from needing to rely on the evaluation of others.
Here are four quick questions from Jane’s book Positive Discipline to ask yourself to help you determine if your comment is encouragement or praise:
- Am I inspiring self-evaluation or dependence on the evaluation of others?
- Am I being respectful or patronizing?
- Am I seeing the child’s point of view or only my own?
- Would I make this comment to a friend?
We all want to see our kids succeed. And we all want our kids to feel good about themselves. Being encouraging is one of the foundations to helping them do both.
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