To help clear up the confusion surrounding praise, here are some examples and suggestions about how much and why you should praise children:
Praise conservatively. Children who are praised excessively often become "hooked" on outside approval, always needing to be pumped up to feel good. For example, Jennifer was 7 years old when her parents sought help from a family counselor. They were convinced she had developed poor self-esteem.
"What tells you that?" the counselor asked.
"She seeks praise all the time," they said. Wanting her to grow up feeling good about herself, Jennifer's parents started giving her liberal doses of praise at an early age. They fell into what can be called the "Cheerleader Syndrome," praising her for nearly everything she did. The more praise she got, the more she demanded.
Be careful when praising "problem" children. Praise can backfire with children who have a history of behavioral problems. For instance, Alex's teachers had complained about his behavior since he started school. His parents, teachers, and a counselor designed a plan that tied privileges (not rewards) at home to good behavior at school.
The teacher agreed to cooperate, although she was concerned that the program lacked enough positive support. After a few weeks, however, Alex's behavior began to improve. After several weeks of slow but steady gains, the teacher decided it was time to give Alex a shot in the arm. She ushered him to the front of the room and praised his improvement to the class. The next day, Alex's behavior completely fell apart.
Keep praise low-key. Excessive praise can also cause children to avoid the things associated with it. In one study, a class of 5-year-olds separated into two groups. The children were given creative materials and told by their teachers to make something.
In one group, the teachers moved around the tables, giving the children lots of praise. The teachers in the second group were more reserved. Instead of hovering, they stayed back from the tables, doing their own thing.
For several days thereafter, the praised group showed little interest in making things while the other group continued working.
Praise the act, not the child. Psychologists make a distinction between evaluative and descriptive praise. Evaluative praise is judgmental and personal. For example, when Michelle brings her bug collection to the teacher, the teacher exclaims, "Oh, Michelle, you are such a smart and creative girl!"
The teacher meant well, but evaluative praise takes away the child's right to be imperfect. Instead, the child feels pressured to achieve an unreasonably high standard of excellence, which may eventually make her feel inadequate.
Descriptive praise, on the other hand, simply acknowledges an accomplishment of one sort or another. In Michelle's case, the teacher could have praised something specific about the bug collection itself.
Praise is important, and delivering it correctly can make all the difference as your children grow.