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Encouragement vs. Praise

May, 2012

Encouragement and praise aren’t the same, and they may have different effects. “Johnny, you are so smart” conveys a very different message than, “You are really working hard on your science project.” Encouragement helps children grow in self-esteem.  It shows them they belong and are accepted, capable, and loved.  Praise can unwittingly lead to a child feeling discouraged or disempowered.  Let me explain.

Although praise and encouragement both focus on positive behaviors and at first glance appear to be the same, praise often fosters dependence by teaching your child to rely on external sources of affirmation and motivation, the opinions of others, rather than upon internalized self-worth and self-motivation.  A child who is praised excessively, especially in front of others, might wonder, “Am I accepted only when I’m good?”  In a subtle way, parental giving or withholding praise can be controlling.  Your child may infer he is worthwhile only as long as you “make” him so.

I encourage parents to help their children develop internal satisfaction with a job well done.  Children who are encouragedto value the effort and work they put toward an accomplishment learn self evaluation.  Instead of looking for the approval of others, they are able to applaud their own efforts and accomplishments.  A child who receives encouragement is more likely to develop an internal locus of control and to become self-directed and responsible.

“You did it!” or “You got it!” are encouraging phrases that recognize effort and improvement.  “That’s a rough one, but I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” shows confidence in your child.  When you say, “Thanks, that was a big help,” you focus on your child’s contributions and efforts.

Children whose efforts are encouraged, valued, and appreciated develop qualities of persistence and determination.  They learn to be appropriately proud of themselves. They formulate ideas about themselves that aren’t based solely on others’ evaluations, and they learn how to encourage themselves. 

There are ways beyond using helpful words to be encouraging.  A nod, a wink, or a smile sends your child a message of encouragement, as does listening without interrupting, or giving him a hug or a pat on the back.  These actions encourage and affirm your child.  Also, you can encourage your child by asking questions such as “What do you need” or “How can I help,” without giving in to the temptation to do the project, assignment or task for him.

Remember, too that your child needs to learn to cooperate, as well as to be the best he can be. He also needs to feel acceptable and accepted all the time – not just when he does something right.  And, he needs to learn to think for himself – not to please someone else.

Using too much praise, or primarily praise, will not help you meet the challenge of parenting.  Does this mean you should never praise your child?  Of course not; there are times when praise can be helpful.  When your child has just scored, you don’t stand up and shout, “You must feel proud of that play!”  No.  You whoop and holler with everyone else.

We all like a reward once in a while.  When your child works hard and accomplishes something, offering your praise is fine.   However, you will be a more effective parent if you avoid praising him too often.  As you practice encouraging his efforts rather than motivating by praise, you will be gratified to by watching him grow in self-confidence and self-worth.



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